Octavius Valentine Catto was born (six days after Valentine’s Day) in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a member of that city’s prominent DeReef family; his father, William Catto, had been a slave and a millwright who earned his freedom and managed to become ordained a Presbyterian minister—a rarity for a black man in the South—through diligent study and a gift for preaching. William Catto originally brought his family north to Baltimore to take passage to Liberia as a missionary, but that plan went awry in 1848 when members of the Charleston Presbytery discovered a cryptic letter written by him that they believed threatened to “excite discontent and insurrection among the slaves.” A warrant was issued for William’s arrest, and he, Sarah and their four children fled for Philadelphia, north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Though he was the third of those four children, Octavius was his father’s favorite, a star pupil described by an acquaintance as “very light and very bright.” He attended what was then the Lombard Street School, the city’s only public grammar school for African-Americans. It was eventually renamed the James Forten School after abolitionist James Forten—the first Philadelphia school named for a black person.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-’95) once wrote that Philadelphia “holds the destiny of our people.” The city was home to the nation’s largest black organizations, the African Episcopalian Church and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The AME’s mother church, Bethel, was the target of so much violence that congregants lined its windowsills with paving stones to throw in case of mob attack.
Moyamensing, the area of Philadelphia below South Street, was where the city’s poorest citizens—the blacks and the Irish—lived. Octavius’s peers were used to sprinting to their school on Lombard Street through hostile territory. The area was also home to 450 liquor dealers. In 1842, the city declared the Temperance Hall built there by the Moyamensing Temperance Society a nuisance; there had already been two arson attempts on it, and they feared that if it burned, it might ignite nearby houses. After a grand jury agreed with this reasoning, the new brick building was torn down.
William Catto, who was working as an itinerant preacher, moved for a time to Allentown, New Jersey, to serve a circuit of churches. Octavius, then 14, became the only black student at an all-white boys’ academy. After a year, William took his family back to Philadelphia and enrolled Octavius in the new Institute for Colored Youth, founded as the result of a Quaker slaveholder’s $10,000 endowment of a school to educate teachers. Opened in 1852 at 716-718 Lombard Street, the I.C.Y. boys’ department originally had six pupils. The school was unusual because it hired black teachers—unheard-of at the time. (The city’s Quaker schools employed white women to teach black children.) Final exam questions for a diploma included, “Inscribe a regular decagon, and a regular polygon of twenty-four sides in a circle, and prove the work.” Octavius was the valedictorian of his class.
In 1864, 155 black men from the North and South met for four days in Syracuse, New York, to form the National Equal Rights League, considered the first national organization “devoted to promoting black equality.” Catto was elected a secretary of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League chapter, formed that autumn in Philadelphia shortly after Abraham Lincoln won reelection to the presidency.
In early January 1865, Catto, who already had a considerable reputation for oratory, delivered the opening address at the celebration of the second anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Black Philadelphians had begun agitating for desegregation of the city’s horse-drawn streetcars; as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society wrote to the cars’ owners, “You are aware that we have a large and respectable class of colored people in our city, who own property, pay taxes, furnish soldiers and seamen for the army & navy, support churches & schools, charitable & literary institutions, & perform the general duty of citizens. Delicate women, with young children in their arms, invalids unable to take a long walk, persons enfeebled by age, are refused entrance or compelled to stand upon the front platform—a part of the car regarded generally, and by yourselves, as an unsafe place. Inoffensive men and women have been insolently ordered to leave a car, and have been thrust out by the conductor, sometimes with violence.” Frederick Douglass was twice bodily removed from Philadelphia streetcars. On the last day of the month, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States, by a vote of 119 to 56, just barely meeting the two-thirds majority requirement.
On April 21, 1865, Catto spoke to a vast crowd of black citizens assembled at the State House (today Independence Hall) as the Twenty-Fourth U.S. Colored Troop, headed south to help occupy Richmond, Virginia, received its regimental flag. After presenting the ceremonial battle flag to the 250 soldiers, dozens of whom he’d taught at the I.C.Y. and many of whom he’d helped recruit, he said, “De Tocqueville prophesied that if ever America underwent Revolution, it would be brought about by the presence of the black race, and that it would result from the inequality of their condition.” Lincoln had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth less than a week before.
Also in 1865, the Banneker Institute, a black literary society to which Catto belonged, applied once again—it had been turned down seven years before—for admission to the haughty Philadelphia City-Wide Congress of Literary Societies, with Catto making the main speech of application. While the majority of members favored admission, the group’s officers instructed those members to vote nay. The members defied the order and admitted the Bannekers, “after a powerful address from our esteemed friend, Mr O.V. Cato, one of the teachers of the High School for colored youth,” as a local paper reported. “Onward still moves the world.” But at the subsequent meeting of the Congress, the Bannekers were turned away at the door.
The Irish Democrats in Philadelphia were fearful that if given the vote, African-Americans would steer the city permanently Republican—and that if allowed to ride desegregated streetcars, they would steal white men’s Navy Yard jobs. Early in 1865, the streetcar companies announced they planned a public poll of their riders on the desegregation question. In advance of the poll, South Philly political boss William McMullen, known as “the Squire,” pulled dirty tricks like paying two black, odiferous “nightmen”—workers who cleaned waste from the city’s privies—to ride up and down the line on bogus errands. The final vote was more than 4,000 riders against desegregation and less than 200 for. But a Republican Philadelphia judge, Joseph Allison, presiding over a case in which a black woman said she’d been beaten by three white men who were throwing her off a streetcar, told the jury that citizens “deemed worthy … to wear the uniform of the soldier of the United States, should not be denied the rights common to humanity.” The jury awarded the plaintiff $50. Catto traveled through the rural communities of Bucks County on behalf of the Equal Rights League, speaking to audiences about black suffrage and the streetcar fight.
In between his other duties and working as a teacher and school administrator, Catto helped found and became a star player for and captain of the Pythian Base Ball Club, a black entrant to the city’s new most popular sport. (It was supplanting cricket.) The Pythians’ first game, against the Albany Bachelor in 1866, was a 70-15 loss. But it was their only defeat of the season; they ended with “a 9-1 record and the acclaim as the best colored team in the city and perhaps the nation,” Biddle and Dubin report. The following year, Catto’s team applied for membership in the state chapter of the National Amateur Association of Base Ball Players, hoping to schedule games against white teams. Association leadership blocked the application from coming up for a vote. Catto then drafted a proposal that the Pythians join the national association, rather than the state chapter. Its convention voted overwhelmingly not to admit “colored clubs.” The following year, the Philadelphia Olympics accepted the Pythians’ citywide challenge to white teams, and a match was set. The game lasted three hours, and the Olympics won, 44 to 23. (Pitching must have been interesting.) A story about the game ran on page one of the New York Times.
After Catto paid for a membership in the Franklin Institute—hitherto closed to blacks—the dean of Jefferson Medical College, B. Howard Rand, threatened to cancel a lecture there if African-Americans were admitted. The museum board refused to bar Catto. Rand canceled his speech.
The weeks before the mayoral election of 1871, which pitted Republican City Council president William Stokley against Democrat James Biddle, were marked by unrest between Philly’s black residents and the Irish. On the night before the election, a black stevedore was shot to death in the street; another man, a laborer named Moses Wright, was wounded and died three weeks later. On Election Day, October 10th, Catto, then age 32, voted, went to the I.C.Y. and sent its teachers and students home because of the danger, warned fellow members of the Fifth Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard that they might be called on to quiet the streets, then walked home to get his uniform. Two doors away from his house, he passed a man who then turned and shot him in the back. The bullet went through his heart. Stokley won the election. One of the Squire’s operatives, a thug named Frank Kelly, was tried for Catto’s murder after five years on the lam. He was acquitted in 1877, by what was likely an all-white jury.
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