Octavius V. Cotto was a civil rights activist, educator, and athlete based in Philadelphia who became a martyr of racial inequality and struggle in 1871. This Saturday, Cotto will be the first African-American to have a statue erected on Philadelphia’s public lands.
Cotto was born free in Charleston, South Carolina in February 22, 1839 to a prominent mixed-race family, moving north and settling in Philadelphia. A stellar student, Cotto early on began speaking out against racial injustice while employing a peaceful approach to racial harmony by way of education and collaboration.
When the U.S. Civil War was underway, Cotto joined forces with other Black activists such as Frederick Douglass, using his connections to eventually rally Colored Troops and lead one of the first volunteer brigades when Confederate forces attacked the city. Beyond his patriotism, Cotto aligned with the Republican Party, which was seen then as one avenue Blacks could gain equal political footing with whites. Cotto was also a known cricket and baseball player, and involved himself in several integration efforts across the city.
With the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which made it possible for African-American men to vote, white Democrats against the concept of Reconstruction rallied to intimidate the growing Black Republican voting bloc. This only served to galvanize Cotto and other Black Republicans who braced for the inevitable clashes.
On October 10, 1871, white Democrats, the majority of whom were poor ethnic Irish who fought for equal footing as well, violently attacked Black voters. Cotto, who was teaching at the time, was caught in the middle of the melee. He was shot and killed in the street as he was on his way to vote. Police did little to intervene in the matter.
A 12-foot bronze statue of Cotto will stand outside City Hall an effort begun in 2006.
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