Philly’s Octavius Catto Was the Hero of America’s First Civil Rights Movement

How 2014 may end up being the year he finally gets his proper recognition.

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Octavius Catto | Image courtesy Temple University Press

Tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 22, is the birthday of a great American who raised his voice against tyranny and oppression and led a people into a new dawn of freedom.

Of course, we’re talking about Octavius V. Catto, one of the unsung heroes of the first Civil Rights Movement — the one that had a civil war in its middle.




He is unsung no more, though, for 2014 is shaping up to be his year. On his birthday, a jubilee of spirituals and praise at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill, the nation’s oldest historically black church, kicks off a six-month long festival celebrating Catto’s life and legacy organized by the Mann Music Center and culminating in a July concert at the Mann that will feature a new orchestral work, “The Passion of Octavius Catto,” composed by Philadelphia native Uri Caine and performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.

And this spring, a committee headed by Councilman James Kenney will announce that it has raised the funds needed to erect a statue of Catto outside City Hall. The announcement will mark the successful conclusion of a campaign launched in 2007 with the support of Jack Straw, the retired head of the Abraham Lincoln Foundation at the Union League of Philadelphia, and other prominent citizens.

What accounts for this sudden explosion of interest in Catto? Actually, it’s not sudden — it’s the fruit of seeds planted more than a decade ago by a number of individuals.

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Daniel R. Biddle (left) and Murray Dubin, co-authors of Tasting Freedom. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Press.

Perhaps the most important of these individuals are Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. Both were reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer — Dubin has since retired — when they stumbled across material about Catto and realized they had an important person whose story was unknown to the public.

“This whole saga of building public recognition and awareness of Catto began when Dan and Murray wrote an article about Catto for the Inquirer that appeared in the Sunday magazine,” said V. Chapman-Smith, a public historian in Philadelphia who helped organize National History Day events in the city and assisted Biddle and Dubin with their historical research. Chapman-Smith herself is part of the seed-planting effort: In response to a request from the local organizers of National History Day, an event geared toward engaging teenagers with historical study, she did her own research into Catto’s life and wrote an article for the 2006 National History Day curriculum. (That article can be found online as “The Triumph and Tragedy of Octavius V. Catto.”)

To produce the story, Chapman-Smith had to be a history detective, piecing Catto’s life together from piles of ephemera and historic documents, as Catto himself was too busy with his life and work to keep a journal. “There are a lot of extraordinary individuals who have disappeared from history,” she said. “You have to go digging through newspaper articles, archives and things to find them again.”

When Biddle and Dubin approached her asking for help with their article, they were frustrated with the lack of historical material on the man. “They had read my article and thought I had the magic bullet,” Chapman-Smith said. She didn’t, but she did have connections among the region’s community of special collections librarians, many of whom could tell the reporters where to look.

From the research they did for the Inquirer magazine article, Biddle and Dubin realized they had a bigger story to tell. They also realized the story was bigger than Catto. And in the book that grew out of that magazine piece, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, the authors placed the man in the context of that first civil rights movement.

“We started out doing a history of Catto,” Dubin said. “But we discovered as we wrote this that he wasn’t alone. There were lots of people like him — there were a hundred Cattos.”

And the battles Catto and his comrades fought bore a striking resemblance to the ones Martin Luther King, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others would fight a century later: Integrating streetcars. Securing the right to vote. Allowing blacks to fight in the armed forces. Even integrating baseball. Some Catto won, others he lost, and still others were won only to be undone as white America grew weary of Reconstruction.

As a teacher at his alma mater, Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University), Catto also produced scores of teachers who would fan out across the South after the Civil War to give the newly freed slaves the education the laws denied them before the war.

In short, we are dealing with no small life here. Catto accomplished so much in his lifetime, we can only wonder how much more he might have done had not Election Day violence brought that life to a premature end in 1871. Yet through the people he taught and associated with, Catto’s work would continue beyond his death: “You can draw lines from people involved with Catto to the founding of the NAACP,” Dubin said.

Biddle and Dubin were genuinely surprised that so little had been written about Catto beyond academic papers when they started research on their work. Kenney had a similar reaction when he learned the man’s story, which Dubin said moved him so profoundly, he now carries a picture of Catto in his briefcase.

(There’s a certain poetic justice in this: Kenney is Irish-American, and poor Irish immigrants were hostile to blacks, who they saw as competition for scarce jobs in antebellum Philadelphia and afterward — the Election Day violence that took Catto’s life was largely the work of Irish-American gangs with ties to powerful Democratic Party boss William McMullen.)

Banner from the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge No. 20. | Photo courtesy Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Banner from the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge No. 20. | Photo courtesy Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

“Except for his descendants, some historians and some teachers, most Americans don’t know the story of that struggle” for equal rights, Biddle said. “The goal of this book was to change that.

“It’s exciting to see all this interest in Catto now. And it’s overdue. It’s an injustice and a loss that the city hasn’t celebrated the struggle of Catto up to this time.”

This year, it looks like the city will finally be making up for lost time. Who knows? Maybe next New Year’s Day, we might even see the return of the O.V. Catto Mummers band. (One can dream, can't one?) Though its former home at 16th and Fitzwater streets no longer stands, the Elks lodge that also bears his name and sponsored the band for decades is still alive and kicking. If it should return, let's hope that it leads the parade rather than bringing up the rear.

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