Biography of Octavius V. Catto –
“Forgotten Black Hero of Philadelphia”
Andy Waskie, Ph.D.
Octavius V. Catto was born in Charleston, S.C. on February 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, N.J. to where his family had briefly removed and finally at the Institute for Colored Youth at 715 Lombard St., located in Philadelphia.
The Institute for Colored Youth was one of the finest institutions of its kind in existence, providing a college level of education free of charge to Colored youth to prepare them as teachers in black schools. Catto graduated from the Institute in 1858 as valedictorian. He immediately was 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 principalship of colored schools in New York, and the superintendency of the Colored Schools of Washington, D.C. Catto declined these honors, however, to remain in Philadelphia at the Institute. In May of 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 and more active in intellectual pursuits, founding the Banneker Literary Institute, and with an increasing interest in politics, founded 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” where he played an outstanding shortstop position, as well as player-coach. The ‘Pythians’ routinely defeated all opponents.
He was a member of a number of other civic, literary, patriotic and political groups, including the, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Library Company, 4th Ward Black Political Club, and the Union League Association. Catto’s facile mind was constantly active in expanding intellectual horizons, and 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 the public transportation in the city as was legislated in the Commonwealth in 1867 at Catto’s urging and activism.
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 Octavius Catto, many of whom were Catto’s own students, officered by whites under Capt. William Babe, a veteran of previous service with the Pennsylvania Volunteer Reserve Corps. Answering the urgent call for volunteers as announced by the governor, they reported to the city arsenal for duty. They were uniformed and 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 whom Catto worked closely, and under his considerable influence eleven (11) regiments of ‘Colored Troops’ were raised in the area, organized at Camp William Penn, trained, equipped and sent to the war front.
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, Frederick Douglass and James Purvis with a magnificent banner for the April 26, 1870 city celebration 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 as a betterment for 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 of 1870 when Pennsylvania passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing voting rights for black men. But it was a long and harrowing path to acceptance by the majority. Due to the threat of rioting by the thugs and rowdy adherents of the ruling Democratic Party and its supporters in the fire and hose companies and street gangs of the city, who were largely composed of Irish immigrants, the U.S. Marshall 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 insure a peaceful voting process. Despite the success this action registered, U.S. Marshal 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 insuring 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 by 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, Octavius 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.
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 (4) Black men would be cut down.
White gang members broke into a home, and seeking to intimidate others, had brutally beaten one Isaac Chase to death for daring to cast a vote.
Returning from the polls, Catto had 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, who were composed mostly of Irish Immigrants, as they were active supporters of the Democrats, serving directly under the mayor. He continued to work to bring his people to the polls, attempting to calm fears. At one point he 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 then ordered to contact the Brigade officers to warn them that they should be ready to be called up to help quell any riots or violence in the city. Under these orders, he set out to return to his home at 814 South Street to obtain his uniform and equipment, and activate the other officers of the Brigade for service in quelling 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 Street, just a few doors from his own home, two or three men (accounts differ) passed him, and they 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 the back of Octavius Catto, 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 the 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 the plight of the black community. Almost 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 dedicated to his principles, thereby validating his cause.
A new feeling of acceptance now greeted the black community in the days that followed.
A coroner’s inquest was immediately convened to assess the cause of Catto’s death. The newspapers of the time followed the details of the hearing for days with rapt attention. The newspaper accounts, with their transcripts of the testimony of witnesses and variance of the reports prove a fascinating glimpse into the tragic events.
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, Col. Alexander McClure, Gen. Louis Wagner, District Attorney-elect Col. William B. Mann, and leaders of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. Resolutions were passed expressing grief for the deceased and appealing for an adoption of his principles. At this time, a large public funeral was planned and paid for at city 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 gain access and a view of the martyred hero.
His pallbearers were fellow-officers of his Brigade. In attendance were many notable veterans of the late war, including: Maj. Gen. Charles Collis, Maj. Gen. Horatio Sickel, and Dr. E. C. Howard, Major and Surgeon of the 12th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Also attending in a body were the members of City Council, members of the state legislature, officers of the Regular Army and Navy, and other distinguished political leaders.
General Louis Wagner, a hero of the fighting of the Civil War, who had commanded at Camp William Penn, training facility for the eleven (11) ‘colored’ regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops that Catto had helped to recruit and organize, 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 mourning ribbon and bunting. The Union League House displayed a huge American flag bordered in black. The parade consisted of regiments of the 5th Brigade, as well as black troops from New Jersey, patriotic organizations, the ‘Pythian Baseball Club’, Literary Societies, and pupils and teachers of his school, many marching, others riding in carriages.
The city offices were all closed, many businesses also closed in sympathy and support. Both black and white by the thousands lined the street in silent reverence for a fallen hero. The procession finally entered 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 gone to God. With clods of earth, family and friends cast a final salute into the grave, and Catto’s body was lowered into his resting place.
The death of Octavius Catto would generate 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’.
Unfortunately, justice was never meted out to Catto’s assassin. Frank 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 D.A. attempted to try Kelly for the murder of Isaac Chase on that same October 10th day, but for this crime, he was also acquitted. Frank Kelly went unpunished.
Many positive results came from Catto’s assassination. The power of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia and its resistance to equal civil rights was broken. William McMullen, 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, and 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 certain 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 will be a revolt in 1881, when the Black community, perceiving flagging support, rebelled against the Party and voted in a block to elect the reform Democratic candidate, Samuel King mayor. Nevertheless, the Black vote in Philadelphia remained solid behind the Republican Party until the election for mayor in 1951 ushered in a 60-year rule of the city for the Democrats.
In modern times, this Octavius 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. He is truly a role model for all those who strive against injustice and seek a better life.
Philadelphia Guide to Afro-American History. Charles Blockson
Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia. 1860-1900. Roger Lane
Cecil’s City: History of Blacks in Philadelphia. 1638-1979. Arthur Wills
The Philadelphia Negro. (Phila.) 1899. W.E.B. DuBois
100 Years After Emancipation: The Negro in Philadelphia History 1863-1963. John A. Saunders
Civil War Issues in Philadelphia, 1856-1865. (1965) William Dusinberre
Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania. Vol I (1905) Alexander McClure
Who’s Who in Philadelphia: Biographical Sketches of Philadelphia’s Leading Colored People. (1912) Charles Fred White
Gardiner Collection: Black History. Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Vol. VLIV, January, 1977
Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Black Militant: Octavius Catto by Harry C. Silcox Vol. XL, July 1973; October 1973 Parts I & II
The Battle to End Discrimination vs. Negroes on Phila. Streetcars. Philip Foner
Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography Issues:
January, 1989 p.48; July, 1986 p. 389; July, 1976 p. 356
Newspapers: (October 11-17, 1871)