By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
A full century before the Civil Rights Movement, and 150 years before the present-day movement for racial and social justice, there was Octavius Valentine Catto. Catto was an unsung hero for civil rights who left an enduring legacy in Pennsylvania and across the national landscape. In 2017, the city of Philadelphia honored Catto with a statue at City Hall — the first statue built there since the 1923 memorial to John Wanamaker.
A renaissance man, Octavius Catto was a scholar and educator, a civil rights activist, an ordained minister, an orator, and a ballplayer. Born free in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina, he was raised in Philadelphia. He attended the Institute for Colored Youth, which would later be known as Cheyney University, where he became a teacher and principal.
Catto worked with the abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass to recruit hundreds of Black soldiers to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. As a political and civil rights leader, he engaged in civil disobedience to bring about equal access for African-Americans on the Philadelphia trolley car system — a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, as part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. An influential insider in the Republican Party, Catto joined and helped lead the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League to bring about black voting rights and the eventual ratification of the 15th Amendment. Catto also attended the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York, which gave birth to the National Equal Rights League, an organization dedicated to full citizenship rights for black people.
“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,” Catto once said.
Octavius Catto influenced other areas of society beyond civil rights and the political realm, as well. For example, he served in the Pennsylvania National Guard and became a member of the Franklin Institute, whose doors had been closed to people of color. And as an avid cricket and baseball player, he founded the Philadelphia Pythians professional baseball club.
Like far too many African-American leaders who have fought the battles against injustice in this country, Octavius Catto was assassinated and died far too young. In 1871, a year after the 15th Amendment was ratified, black voters — who were typically Republican — went to the polls for the first time. They faced intimidation and violence from Irish-Americans who were part of Philly’s Democratic machine. On Election Day, Catto was harassed by a group of Irish-Catholic men and shot to death by a man named Frank Kelly. The civil rights leader was on duty with the National Guard when he was killed. Kelly was a fugitive for five years until he was tried and acquitted. Thousands of people attended Catto’s funeral, with his viewing held at the City Armory. He was buried at the Lebanon Cemetery, a black cemetery.
“We shall never rest at ease, but will agitate and work, by our means and by our influence, in court and out of court, asking aid of the press, calling upon Christians to vindicate their Christianity, and the members of the law to assert the principles of the profession by granting us justice and right, until these invidious and unjust usages shall have ceased,” Catto said.