Important Pennsylvanians | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

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Important Pennsylvanians

Octavius V. Catto: Forgotten Black Hero of Philadelphia

Octavius V. Catto was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 22, 1839.  His father was a Presbyterian minister who brought his family to Philadelphia when Octavius was still a child. Catto grew up in Philadelphia and was afforded an excellent education in the city grammar schools, the Academy in Allentown, New Jersey–where his family had briefly moved–and the Institute for Colored Youth in South Philadelphia.

An Outstanding Academic

The Institute for Colored Youth was one of the finest institutions of its, providing a college-level education to colored youth, free of charge, to prepare them as teachers in black schools.

Catto graduated from the Institute in 1858 as valedictorian. He was immediately added to the teaching staff as assistant to the principal, Professor E.D. Bassett, who was possibly the best-known black scholar in the country. Catto taught classes in English literature, higher mathematics and classical languages.

His reputation for scholarship and excellence in teaching was so great that he was offered the position of principal of colored schools in New York and superintendent of the Colored Schools of Washington, D.C. Catto declined these honors to remain in Philadelphia at the Institute.

In May 1864, Catto, as a distinguished graduate of the Institute, was invited to deliver the Commencement address and history of the Institute in the Classical style. This was a great and appropriate honor accorded only to the finest and most esteemed of the educational elite of the community.

Catto became more active in intellectual pursuits, founding the Banneker Literary Institute, and with an increasing interest in politics, he established the Equal Rights League in October 1864.  He was equally involved in sports as the founder and captain of the finest baseball team in the city, the Pythian Baseball Club, on which he played an outstanding shortstop position, as well as player-coach.  The “Pythians” routinely defeated all opponents.

Equal Rights Advocate

Catto was a member of a number of other civic, literary, patriotic and political groups, including the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Library Company, 4th Ward Black Political Club and the Union League Association.

Catto was constantly active in expanding intellectual horizons, and he saw political activity as a means to foster betterment for his people. He was largely responsible for the adoption of the ”Bill of Rights” for equal access to public transportation in the city, as was legislated in the Commonwealth in 1867 at Catto's urging and activism.

Equal Rights for Military Service

During the Civil War, while still a young man, he was a staunch supporter of the Union, the Lincoln administration, the efforts of the Republican Party to improve civil rights for blacks and to assist in the war effort, and the struggle to end the scourge of slavery. 

When the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, a call for Emergency Troops went out to spur volunteering to repel the invader. One of the first units to volunteer was a company of black men raised by Catto, many of whom were his students, officered by whites under Captain William Babe, a veteran of previous service with the Pennsylvania Volunteer Reserve Corps.  Answering the urgent call for volunteers by the governor, they reported to the city arsenal for duty. They were uniformed, equipped and sent by train to Harrisburg to join the army. But the authorities there under General Couch ingloriously rejected the unit with the excuse that black troops were not authorized.

Catto, undaunted by the rejection, returned to Philadelphia and, under recent War Department authority, threw himself into the effort to raise black troops to fight for their own emancipation. He joined with Frederick Douglass and other prominent black leaders to form a Recruitment Committee and was tireless in his efforts to convince young black men to rally to the colors. With the assistance of the Union League, with which Catto worked closely, and under his considerable influence, 11 regiments of "Colored Troops" were raised in the area. Organized at Camp William Penn, the troops were trained, equipped and sent to war.

Equal Rights for Voting

Working in concert with the nascent Republican Party, which he wholeheartedly embraced, and with the support of the Union League, Catto unceasingly pursued the coveted goal of full and equal rights for blacks.  In fact, the Union League presented Catto, Douglass and James Purvis with a magnificent banner for the city celebration on April 26, 1870,organized to proclaim Pennsylvania's adoption of the 15th Amendment assuring black men the vote.

Catto was an eloquent, persuasive and powerful speaker with an upright, intelligent and charismatic bearing, possessed of impeccable academic credentials.  He had a deep and abiding belief in the power of education to improve the status of blacks and prove beneficial for the betterment of all citizens.  In a January 1865 speech before the Union League Association, which he had founded to cooperate with the Union League of Philadelphia, Catto said:

“It is the duty of every man, to the extent of his interest and means to provide for the immediate improvement of the four or five millions of ignorant and previously dependent laborers, who will be thrown upon society by the reorganization of the Union. It is for the good of the nation that every element of its people, mingled as they are, shall have a true and intelligent conception of the allegiance due to the established powers.”

Catto's equal rights crusade was capped in October 1870 when Pennsylvania passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing voting rights for African American men.  But it was a long and harrowing path to acceptance by the majority. Due to the threat of rioting by thugs, rowdy adherents of the ruling Democratic Party and its supporters in the fire and hose companies, and street gangs (largely Irish immigrants), the U.S. Marshal in Philadelphia, Edgar M. Gregory—himself a Union general in the Civil War–called out a contingent of Marines from the Navy Yard to quell the disturbances and ensure a peaceful voting process. Despite the success this action registered, Gregory and the city came under enormous criticism from the Democrats.

Democratic mayor Daniel Fox and the police force he controlled exhibited little interest in ensuring a peaceful and fair voting procedure in 1871. With little hope of obtaining support from the city or federal authorities, the events of October 10, 1871, would prove a stain on the honor of a great and historic city.

Because African Americans openly supported the Republican Party, Democrats had warned the city that any attempt by the blacks to vote in the election would be met with violence. They cited “colored repeaters” (those who voted more than once), who “voted early and often”(perhaps the origin of the popular phrase?). They even insulted the black voters by offering them: “a vote: good for one drink!”as appeared in the press and local advertising.

In this election of 1871, Colonel William B. Mann, a Civil War hero himself, was running for the office of District Attorney on the Republican ticket.  He actively sought the black vote to swing a divided electorate to his candidacy. The Democrats feared his election, knowing of his threat to “clean up the city,” stop the corruption, depredations and outrages of the Democrats, and enforce equal voting rights.  They knew that his election would ensure the end of the party's sway over neighborhood politics, graft and power.

In this charged and intense period, Catto worked even harder to get out the black vote, thus ensuring the enmity and hatred of the ward thugs and supporters of the Democratic Party.

A Tragic Ending

On the fateful day of the election–October 10, 1871–Catto was tireless in his activism, despite the threats and intimidation of his opponents. He went to his 4th Ward voting place and cast his vote.  Street violence, disturbances and even murder had already commenced. During the course of the day, four black men would be cut down. Seeking to intimidate others, white gang members broke into a home and brutally beat a black man, Isaac Chase, to death for daring to cast a vote.

Returning from the polls, Catto witnessed the disturbance and decided to return to his school. He dismissed the pupils and teachers for the day as a precaution against violence. He could not rely on protection by the police—mostly Irish immigrants who were active supporters of the Democrats and served directly under the mayor. He continued to work to bring his people to the polls, attempting to calm fears.

At one point Catto conferred with the commander of his 12th Regiment of the 5th Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard, as he was then serving as 5th Brigade Inspector General with the rank of Major. He was ordered to contact the Brigade officers to warn them that they should be ready to help quell any riots or violence in the city.  Under these orders, he set out to return to his home at 814 South St. to obtain his uniform and equipment and activate other officers of the Brigade for service in stopping the violence.

Catto walked from 8th and Lombard Streets up 9th Street where he encountered the still simmering riot at the Isaac Chase house. He then walked east on South Street toward his home.  As he passed 822 South St., just a few doors from his own home, a few men passed him and exchanged remarks, possibly insults. One of the men, Frank Kelly, who was a member of the Moyamensing Hose Company, a Democratic Party operative and an associate of the Party boss William McMullen, turned a few steps after passing Catto and fired two pistol shots into Catto's back, one bullet piercing his heart. Catto staggered and fell almost on his own doorstep. He was then carried into the nearby 5th Ward Police Station, but it was too late–Catto was dead.

True to Catto's example, the black populace remained calm.  In fact, word of the tragic deed spread rapidly and even spurred others, who may have been reluctant to vote, to flock to the polls. Even among many whites there was sympathy and indignation at the heinous crime and at the plight of the black community. Nearly the entire city praised Catto as a martyr to the cause of civil rights. A backlash against the violence turned out a large majority for the Republican ticket, which swept to victory due to the ultimate sacrifice of one man dedicated to his principles, thereby validating his cause. In the days that followed, a new feeling of acceptance greeted the black community.

A coroner's inquest was immediately convened to assess the cause of Catto's death.  The newspapers followed the details of the hearing for days with rapt attention. The newspaper accounts, with transcripts of the testimony of eyewitnesses and variance of the reports, prove a fascinating glimpse into the tragic events.

A Martyred Hero

Several days after the fatal attack, a large and impassioned meeting of Catto's friends was held at National Hall on 12th and Market Streets. Numerous prominent speakers extolled the virtues of Catto's life and denounced the treacherous murder in stark terms.  Both black and white supporters spoke out about the outrage. Many of the white speakers were members of the Union League, including Morton McMichael, Colonel Alexander McClure, General Louis Wagner, District Attorney-elect Colonel William B. Mann and leaders of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. Resolutions were passed expressing grief for the late Catto and appealing for an adoption of his principles. At this time, a large public funeral was planned and paid for at the city's expense.

The largest public funeral in the city since that of Abraham Lincoln was held for Octavius Catto on October 16, 1871.  Because Catto was at the time serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard as a Major and Inspector General of the 5th Brigade, and in fact was on duty at the time of his murder, a full military funeral was authorized.  Catto was laid in state in the City Armory at Broad and Race Streets.  His coffin was placed in the center of the Armory, and he was laid out in the full dress uniform of a Major of Infantry.  His bier was guarded by troops of the 5th Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Thousands thronged the streets to view the martyred hero. His pallbearers were fellow officers of his Brigade.  In attendance were many notable veterans of the late war, including Major General Charles Collis, Major General Horatio Sickel and Dr. E. C. Howard, Major and Surgeon of the 12th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.  Also in attendance were members of the City Council, members of the state legislature, officers of the Army and Navy and other distinguished political leaders.

General Louis Wagner, a hero of the Civil War, who had commanded at Camp William Penn, led the funeral procession.  Wagner now commanded the 5th Brigade of the National Guard and had served with Catto during the war. He was also a Union League member, staunch supporter of equal rights and a leading Republican politician.  The procession was formed in Broad Street and marched past buildings draped in black ribbon and bunting. The Union League House displayed a large American flag bordered in black. The parade consisted of regiments of the 5th Brigade, black troops from New Jersey, patriotic organizations, the Pythian Baseball Club, Literary Societies and pupils and teachers of Catto's school.

All of the city offices were closed, and many businesses also closed in sympathy and support. Thousands of blacks and whites lined the street in silent reverence for a fallen hero. The procession ended at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery at 17th and Wolfe Streets.  There the final obsequies were held, prayers offered, a Masonic service performed and the traditional honor volleys fired over the grave of the soldier.  With clods of earth, family and friends cast a final salute into the grave, and Catto's body was lowered into his resting place.

Unfortunately, justice was never meted out to Catto's assassin. Kelly escaped into the safety of Moyamensing taverns that fateful day, where he was hidden until he was spirited out of Philadelphia and moved to Chicago. In 1877, he was finally arrested and extradited to Philadelphia for trial. In the trial for the murder of Catto, a sympathetic jury acquitted him. The district attorney attempted to try Kelly for the murder of Isaac Chase on that same October day, but he was also acquitted for that crime. Kelly went unpunished.

A Lasting Impact

Catto's death generated sympathy and acceptance of the voting rights of blacks and moved the black community solidly behind the rising Republican Party. Later, Catto would be honored by the city by having a public school named for him. A number of fraternal and civic organizations would also name themselves "Catto."

Many positive changes were prompted by Catto's assassination. The power of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia and its resistance to equal civil rights was broken. The party boss McMullen and his political machine, the street gangs, and the hose companies lost influence with the populace. The Republicans began to realize the importance of the black vote as more patronage, city office appointments and jobs now flowed into the community. Generous donations were bestowed on black institutions, especially the churches and their ministries. Republican political clubs flourished in the black wards. Black candidates were nominated and elected to some city offices.

Although support for the Republican Party would wax and wane in the black community, along with the intensity of the party’s actions and support, there would be a revolt in 1881 when the black community, perceiving flagging support, would rebel against the party and vote in a block to elect the reform Democratic candidate, Samuel King, for mayor. Nevertheless, the black vote in Philadelphia remained solid behind the Republican Party until the election for mayor in 1951, which ushered in a 60-year rule of the city for the Democrats.

In modern times, Catto, giant of the civil rights movement, defender of his country, educator par excellence, civic activist and martyr to his cause, has been forgotten by all but a few.  May this oversight be corrected and his memory long endure in a grateful city.  Catto serves as a role model for all those who strive against injustice in search of a better life.

Information for this section was contributed by Andy Waskie, Ph.D.

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