The work reveals the life and legacy of Octavius Valentine Catto and other local civil rights leaders.
Shadowing the 1400 block of Catharine Street, words like “valor” and “heroism” woven into earth tone shades surround a colossal portrait of civil rights leader Octavius Valentine Catto, as the figure overlooks a neighborhood he once called home.
On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, members of Mural Arts Philadelphia, members of the Philadelphia School District, students of Universal Institute Charter School and neighbors from the South of South neighborhood gathered outside of the UICS to officially dedicate Remembering a Forgotten Hero — a 6,000 foot square-foot mural by local artists Willis Nomo Humphrey and Keir Johnston.
The public art, which not only celebrates the life and legacy of Catto but other local civil rights leaders, was the undertaking of UISC students and the Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Guild — a program tailored toward incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.
“What is thrilling about this mural is it tells the story of a hero, a person of courage and fortitude,” Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts, told the crowd. “Willis and Kier gracefully and graciously assembled an incredible team and over almost two years carefully constructed this beautiful work of art that you see.”
A prolific leader in the civil rights movement of the mid-1800s, Catto, who was born in South Carolina and eventually settled in Philadelphia, encouraged thousands of African Americans to register to vote. Along with serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard as a major in the Union Army during the Civil War, Catto was also the headmaster of Institute for Colored Youth, which later was named Cheyney University.
In October 1871, an Election Day, Catto was assassinated and killed in front of a polling place on the 700 block of South Street in South Philadelphia.
Nearly 150 years later, the city is striving to shed light on his impact.
The mural was unveiled just a year after a sculpture of Catto was installed outside of City Hall.
“Now, we gather to celebrate Catto’s legacy once again,” Kenney told the crowd. “This time with a beautiful mural in his memory. I am very, very proud that his legacy is now getting some of the recognition it so richly deserved. O.V. Catto’s story is a story of a courageous, unsung American hero who, like countless other unknown and seldom-recognized black Americans, contributed so much to America’s progress.”
Also including images of trolleys and athletics, the mural emulates other aspects of Catto’s life, such as his work to integrate baseball, including his participation as a second baseman on Philadelphia’s best black team, and his efforts to desegregate trolley cars.
Collaged with sketches of the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall and a map of the Mason-Dixon Line, other civil rights leaders are featured in the mural, such as Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Forten, Robert Smalls, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Jacob White, Jr. and Daniel A. Payne.
“How powerful is it for our scholars to look up at that mural and see such bravery and greatness and then see that bravery and greatness in themselves?” said Dr. Penny Nixon, senior executive vice president of education and superintendent of Universal Companies.
The artists worked alongside historians, such as V. Chapman-Smith, vice president of education initiatives for the Catto Memorial Fund and educators from the School District of Philadelphia who engaged with 80 public school teachers, and teachers of UICS to enlighten more than 11,000 Philadelphia students on the story of Catto and his significance in American civil rights movements.
For the UICS students, who not only had the opportunity to share their Catto learnings at City Hall in the spring but also painted portions of the murals themselves last May, the new public art is intended to inspire.
“As I’m looking out at the crowd, I know you’re all looking at the mural, and it’s beautiful. But, what’s so beautiful, from my perspective, is all of you coming together, and that’s what we need to do,” Humphrey told the crowd. “I think that’s what Catto was about — to see all the generations, all the young people, our future, our past coming together in peace and positivity — is a beautiful thing.”