Philadelphia's black history in bronze: Octavius Catto to stand tall

The documentary "The Contradictions of Fair Hope," screening Saturday at the African American Museum, examines an Alabama benevolent society and some of its last surviving members, with interviews with historians.
The documentary "The Contradictions of Fair Hope," screening Saturday at the African American Museum, examines an Alabama benevolent society and some of its last surviving members, with interviews with historians.
Posted: February 01, 2014

Black History Month begins Saturday, offering weeks of opportunities to explore the riches of African American culture in a city where so many significant stories are rooted, including those of the enslaved workers in George Washington's first presidential home and the men who birthed free black America.

Philadelphia awaits the April announcement of the sculptor for a statue memorializing 19th-century civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto - the city's first public sculpture commemorating a specific African American citizen.

But there's no need to wait for the unveiling of the statue, on City Hall's south apron, to savor the richness of Philadelphia's own black history.

On Saturday, the African American Museum of Philadelphia hosts a screening and discussion of the award-winning documentary The Contradictions of Fair Hope, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, which examines temporal and religious tensions through the lens of an Alabama African American benevolent society and its signature Foot Wash Festival.

The 22d annual African American Children's Book Fair, billed as the nation's oldest and largest, also takes place Saturday, at Community College of Philadelphia. At least two dozen authors and thousands of books highlight the event.

Throughout the month, the National Constitution Center will host programs illuminating black history from enslavement to the present.

Visitors to the historic district can trace the formation of black America - Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church maintains a small museum devoted to Richard Allen, who founded both the church and the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. He looms large as the city looks to the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

Allen was a prime mover behind the 1787 founding of the Free African Society - the nation's first black self-help and rights group, and the direct ancestor of the civil rights activists who made the 1950s and 1960s so vital to the nation's freedoms today. Allen and his late-18th-century and early-19th-century colleagues - Absalom Jones, James Forten, James Dexter - were the forerunners of Octavius Catto as well.

Catto, a civil rights activist, educator, and athlete, was gunned down at age 32 on South Street, during violence aimed at preventing black citizens from voting on Election Day in 1871. The white man widely identified as his killer was never convicted.

Rosalyn McPherson, project director for the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund, which is developing the statue, said this week that the organization will announce in April the artist who will design the statue, a $2 million project.

City Councilman James F. Kenney, who spearheaded the effort, said the sculpture would be an important addition to City Hall's environs. "I look around City Hall and I look at the apron, and certainly the people memorialized there are important people, from the president of the United States to John Wanamaker and the people who did industrial things in the city."

But, he said, "There is a space left, and that space belongs to him. That belongs to Catto. . . . I didn't learn about Catto until I was in my 40s, reading about the white guys who killed him. Then, as I started looking more and more at what he did, I said, 'This guy was more like the Dr. King and Jackie Robinson of his age.' "

Catto's family came to Philadelphia from Charleston, S.C., when he was about 5 years old. He graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University. A distinguished scholar, he was trained in classical languages and sciences; a talented shortstop, in 1869 he organized the first baseball game between a white team and a black team in Philadelphia. He also led the successful effort to desegregate public transportation across Pennsylvania.

Several observers note that while the statue will be an important addition to Philadelphia's public art, there are many others who might be commemorated, among them Richard Allen; sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; singer/actor Paul Robeson; contralto Marian Anderson, and jazz great John Coltrane. (A statue of boxer Joe Frazier is in the works.)

Molefi K. Asante, chairman of African American studies at Temple University, called the absence of any such sculpture almost unbelievable: "The city is rich, but we have not done a good job" of memorializing African American Philadelphians.

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Association for Public Art, noted that there are several representational sculptures, among them the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, circa 1934, at 20th and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which she described as "one of the most incredible monuments in the country of its type."

But there are none of notable African American individuals, and Murray Dubin, who with Inquirer politics editor Daniel R. Biddle wrote the book Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, said there should be more.

"The fact that there are no statues of individual African Americans, man or woman - I think it's an oversight and I think it's embarrassing to the city, and having Catto be the first one sort of says something about how important he was in the 19th century," Dubin said. " . . . You can certainly say that the civil rights leaders who came after him, many of them, stand on the shoulders of Catto and men and women like him."


OTHER EVENTS OF INTEREST

Friday The Grammy Award-winning musical troupe Ladysmith Black Mambazo, longtime Paul Simon collaborators known as the kings of South African a cappella, are at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts one night only.

Feb. 7 Charles L. Blockson, founder of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, discusses his The President's House Revisited Behind the Scenes: The Samuel Fraunces Story, about a black man who worked as a spy, cook, and steward for George Washington at the President's House. 3 p.m., 1330 Polett Walk on the Temple University campus.

Feb. 7 "Mood Indigo: A Harlem Renaissance Retrospective." Dandy Wellington and His Band play the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Art After 5, offering compositions by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others.

Feb. 15-17 Historic Philadelphia: All weekend, Once Upon a Nation storytellers will tell stories of African Americans who played a role in America's history, including Philadelphia's Octavius Catto. At the Historic Philadelphia Center, 150 S. Independence Mall W.

Feb. 16 Fusing South African gospel, reggae, and pop, Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir has toured around the world and brings its soul-stirring sound to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in University City.

Feb. 16 Philadelphia's history of pioneering African American disc jockeys is the subject of "Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio," presented by Mighty Writers and WXPN. Hear it at 6 p.m. on WHYY-FM (90.9); repeated at 2 p.m. Feb. 22.

Feb. 18-23 A new adaptation and winner of the 2012 Tony Award for best revival of a musical, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess comes to the Academy of Music for one week.

Feb. 26 The Philadelphia Museum of Art and Radio One present a panel discussion titled "Philadelphia: Brotherly Love & Sisterly Affection, Contributors to the Cultural Landscape of Our City." Radio personality Dyana Williams and State Sen. Vincent Hughes lead the event.


vclark@phillynews.com215-854-5717

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