Octavius Catto Statue

Image caption: The 12-foot tall bronze Octavius Catto statue faces Broad Street outside of City Hall.

Photo by Danielle Corcione

Story by Octavia Geiger

Octavius Valentine Catto was a civil rights activist in Philadelphia.

He was born a free African-American on February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina. As a young boy, his family moved north. Catto started his education at Vaux Primary School and then Lombard Grammar School; both were segregated institutions at the time.

In 1854, he became a student at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) which was managed by Quakers. Catto graduated in 1858, receiving praise from principal Ebenezer Bassett. He went on to do a year of post-graduate study in Washington, DC and then returned to Philadelphia and was a Recording Secretary of the Banneker Institute and an instructor in English and Mathematics at the ICY. Catto was an abolitionist, and during the Civil War he joined with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders to sign up African-American men to fight for the Union and emancipation.

In November 1864, Catto became a Corresponding Secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. On election day on October 10, 1871, Catto was on his way to vote and was harassed by whites who were trying to intimidate black voters. Catto was murdered by an Irishman by the name of Frank Kelly who shot Catto three times. The city investigated, and their reports said they could not determine if Catto had and used his own revolver; thus Kelly was not convicted of murder.

On September 24, 2017, a 12-foot bronze statue of Octavius Catto called “A Quest for Parity” was erected on the southwest side of City Hall; it is the first public monument in Philadelphia to honor an African American figure.

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