Biography of Octavius V. Catto: Forgotten Black Hero of Philadelphia

Uncle Sam - Stock Photo

By Andy Waskie, Ph.D.

Andy Waskie is a professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and at Holy Family College, in the Civil War History Institute. He is a Civil war historian specializing in Philadelphia in the Civil War, and is very active in the Philadelphia Civil War history community. In October 2001 he gave an Underground Railroad tour of Philadelphia for the General Meade Society and is quite familiar with the historic sites of Philadelphia dealing with Black History. Dr. Waskie also contributed Catto’s 1864 “Our Alma Mater” speech..

Octavius V. Catto was born in Charleston, S.C. 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 Institute for Colored Youth at 915 Bainbridge St. in Moyamensing.

The Institute for Colored Youth was the finest institution of its kind in existence, providing a college level of education. 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 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.

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. 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 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 the public transportation in the city.

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 and to assist in the war effort, and the struggle to end the scourge of slavery. When Confederate troops invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, a call for Emergency Troops went out to spur volunteering to repel the invaders. One of the first units to volunteer was a company of Black men raised by Octavius Catto and officered by whites under Capt. Babb, who reported to the city arsenal for duty. They were uniformed and equipped and sent to Harrisburg to join the army, but 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 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 an 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, 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 be, 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 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 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 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!”

In this election of 1871, Colonel William B. Mann, a Civil War hero, 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 Black men would be gunned down. White gang members broke into a home and, seeking to intimidate others, brutally beat a Black resident, Isaac Chase, to death for daring to cast a vote. Returning from the polls, Catto had witnessed the disturbances 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 supporters of the Democrats, serving directly under the mayor. Catto continued to work to bring his people to the polls, attempting to calm fears. At one poin the conferred with the colonel of his 12th Regiment of the 5th Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard, as he was then serving as 5th Brigade inspector, holding the rank of major. He was ordered to contact the Brigade officers and 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.

Catto walked from 8th and Lombard 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 Party Boss William McMullen, turned a few steps after passing and fired two pistol shots into the back of Octavius Catto. One bullet pierced his heart. Catto staggered and fell almost on his own doorstep. He was 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 news 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. The resulting 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. A new feeling of acceptance suddenly 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, are fascinating.

Several days after the fatal attack, a large and impassioned meeting of Catto’s friends was held at National Hall on Market Street. 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 of his death, serving in the Pennsylvania National Guard as a Major and Inspector of the 5th Brigade, and in fact was on duty at the time of his murder, a full military funeral was held. 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 when eleven Black regiments were organized and trained there, 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, a staunch supporter of equal rights and a leading Republican. 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 troops from New Jersey, representatives of patriotic organizations, the ‘Pythian Baseball Club’, members of city Literary Societies, and pupils and teachers of Catto’s school, many marching, others riding in carriages.

The city offices were all closed and many businesses also closed in sympathy and support. Black and white spectators by the thousands lined the street in silent reverence for the fallen hero. The procession finally entered Mt. Lebanon Cemetery at 17th and Wolfe Streets. There the final obsequies were held, prayers offered, 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 for, 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. However a sympathetic jury acquitted Kelly in the trial for the murder of Octavius Catto. 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.

Ultimately, many positive changes came about from Catto’s assassination. The power of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, with its resistance to equal civil rights, was broken. William McMullen and his political machine, the street gangs, and the hose companies all lost influence. The Republicans began to realize the importance of the Black vote, and more patronage, city office appointments and jobs 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, there was a major 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, as mayor. Nevertheless, the Black vote in Philadelphia remained solidly behind the Republican Party until the election for mayor in 1951, which ushered in a 60 year reign for the Democrats.

In modern times, Octavius V. 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 survive in a grateful city. He is truly a role model for all those who strive against injustice and seek a better way.

Source: (no longer active)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.