The Mann Center for Performing Arts Keeps the Life and legacy of Octavius V. Catto Alive!

by Nolan Williams, Jr.
Festival Artistic Director, Philadelphia Freedom Festival 
The Mann Center for the Performing Arts

Forward: Seeing beyond Sterling

Don Sterling. No doubt, this name has become a lightning rod in the past few weeks.  The recordings and subsequent interviews that capture Sterling’s extremist and inflammatory remarks, have reignited the dialogue about race in America. The downside is that this current dialogue has been incited by a controversial event and therefore limited to this particular controversy. Thus, we vilify Sterling, take solace in the NBA Commissioner’s tough stance, and then go back to business as usual – all the while avoiding deeper engagement or discussion about race.

Deeper engagement means facing some blatant truths.  TRUTH is racism is not new, and is not dead. TRUTH is the story of the fight for civil rights in America is both an innate and continuing saga. It is innate because race has been an integral part of our history since the first Africans were brought to North America over 400 years ago. It has only been 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that eliminated most of the remnants of legalized racial segregation and discrimination. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that only a relatively small portion of America’s history has been spent undoing, addressing, and correcting racial wrongs that have existed over several centuries.

Dare to go deeper?

Octavius Catto, year unknown
Octavius Catto, year unknown

If so, here’s another name for you: Octavius V. Catto (‘CAT-toe’).   It’s not a name you’ll find in many history books. In fact, the history of Philadelphia has oft been told with the willful exclusion of his name. Yet, his is a story that merits telling: (1) of how he and his contemporaries secured voting rights and integrated the public transit system in their day; (2) of how he was a manager and player for the Philadelphia Pytheons, a Black baseball team that predates the Negro Baseball League; (3) of how he was a scholar and teacher, an extraordinary feat for a Black man born in 1839, who taught math, English and classic languages at the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University, the nation’s first historically Black university); (4) of how he worked alongside Frederick Douglass to recruit 11 regiments of colored soldiers from Philadelphia to fight in the Civil War; and (5) finally, how he was murdered on Election Day in 1871, at the hand of Frank Kelly, for leading a get-out-the-vote drive that rallied scores of Black Republican men in Philadelphia to the polls, upsetting Irish Democratic immigrants who feared a loss of employment and economic opportunities if they lost that election.  And of how Kelly was never convicted of his crime.

Unfortunately, Catto’s story was never a media sensation, nor a hot trending topic.  But, for people of good will, people who dare to engage beyond the salacious headlines of the Sterling scandal, Catto’s story is one we should share because it aids us greatly in the critical process of undoing, unlearning, redressing and correcting.

The Mann Center for the Performing Arts is honored to play a role in that process. We are in the midst of an unprecedented series of free concerts and forums called the Philadelphia Freedom Festival which culminates on July 19 with a free “Gospel Meets Symphony” concert with gospel artist Marvin Sapp, soprano Barbara Walker, The Philadelphia Orchestra and a community gospel choir.

The Mann is joined by others in our community, like the organizers of the planned Catto statue at City Hall and The Philadelphia Inquirer reporters who authored the landmark book on Catto, Tasting Freedom, in leveraging the power of the arts to positively move race dialogue and race relations in Philadelphia forward.

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