Festival to commemorate the life of Octavius Catto

Rhoda Blount, of the Mann Center , discusses plans for the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Rhoda Blount, of the Mann Center , discusses plans for the Philadelphia Freedom Festival. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 17, 2014

An ambitious seven-month-long festival commemorating the life and legacy of Philadelphia civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto as a local and national leader was announced by the Mann Center for the Performing Arts at a news conference Wednesday. Culminating in a July 19 performance at the Mann Center's Main Stage featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra, a 300-voice gospel choir, and the premiere of a Catto-inspired commissioned piece composed by Philadelphia-born Uri Caine, the festival will extend to the city's schools, churches, and concert halls.

With workshops, panel discussions, concerts, poetry, and spoken-word performances, revival celebrations, and an award ceremony, the Philadelphia Freedom Festival represents a major effort on the part of the Mann to reach new audiences and to celebrate the legacy of one of the city's great 19th-century Americans.

"Presenting a major curatorial festival of this nature is central to the strategic vision of the Mann as it reflects the commitment of our board to this caliber of unprecedented programming," said Catherine M. Cahill, Mann president and chief executive.

"This is the 21st century," she said. "We live in a very diverse city with a variety of audiences. We want to make sure we are inclusive, accessible, relevant, and vital."

The press gathering, in a packed second-floor public room at the Union League on South Broad Street on the anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, was accented by the attendance of many members of the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge No. 20, all wearing their trademark colorful fezes. An O.V. Catto reenactor greeted one and all.

The Mann also has incorporated the effort to erect a memorial statue in Catto's honor on the south apron of City Hall into festival events. City Councilman James F. Kenney, a leader of the memorial effort, said he had never heard of Catto until about eight years ago, and the more he learned, the more he realized "we needed to recognize [Catto's] accomplishments."

Catto was an educator, intellectual - learned in Greek and Latin - and civil-rights activist who worked tirelessly to open up elections to African American voters. He also was an accomplished cricket and baseball player.

Despite these achievements, or perhaps because of them, Catto was shot and killed in 1871 during election-day violence in Philadelphia, when ethnic Irish attacked blacks to prevent them from voting.

The man accused of Catto's murder was acquitted.

Memorial officials said they expected to announce a sculptor for the statue in April. The Catto memorial would be the first public sculpture in the city to honor an individual black American.

The Philadelphia Freedom Festival will kick off in February with workshops and performances at four city schools.

On Feb. 22, in celebration of Catto's 175th birthday, Mother Bethel AME Church will host what is described as an "all-Negro Spiritual Church Meeting." On March 28, acknowledging women's history month, the festival will convene an awards luncheon at the Union League's Lincoln Hall honoring prominent African American women.

April 18 will see music students from four city universities converge on the Curtis Institute of Music for a master class with composer Uri Caine.

On April 30, a panel discussion of Catto's life and legacy will be held at Temple University. The Cheyney University Concert Choir will perform.

Some 400 students will descend on the Church of the Advocate on May 16 for a program of spoken-word artists and city school choir performances.

"Freedom Rap Session" on June 7 will feature local hip-hop artists and scholars, who have studied and experienced racism in Philadelphia, discussing the power of music and language.

During the festival's climax on July 19, the orchestra, voice chorus, award-winning gospel artist Milton Sapp, founder and senior pastor of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a host of praise dancers will present Canine's piece "Sing Freedom Sing!!!."

Nolan Williams Jr., artistic director for the festival, said a year's worth of planning went into the events.

"I believe studying the past helps us to understand ourselves . . . and understand one another," he said. "Arts and music are tools we must leverage . . . to help us understand."

For more information about the festival and related events, visit the Philadelphia Freedom Festival website at www.manncenter.org/philadelphia-freedom-festival.




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