Historians say he was short in stature but was large in impact and achieved so much in a very short time. Octavius Catto fought for equality in the streets and on the baseball diamond and pushed for Black voting rights. He worked to desegregate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars, raised all-Black regiments to fight in the Civil War before fighting for Black suffrage. He also started an all-Black baseball team.
He did all the above before the age of 32, years before the civil rights protests in Selma and Birmingham. Yet his story was largely forgotten. An educator, military man and activist, Catto was born in Charleston, S.C., on February 22, 1839. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was from a free mixed-race family. His father was a former slave in South Carolina who became a Presbyterian minister and a church leader.
At age five, Catto and his family moved north to Philadelphia where he did well academically. He graduated in 1858 as valedictorian of the Institute for Colored Youth (which became Cheney University). He then went to Washington, D.C. to do postgraduate work and receive private tutoring in Latin and Greek before coming back to Philadelphia to teach at his alma mater.
NPR reports that by his 20s, he had achieved a lot. Besides founding the Banneker Literacy Institute, he was inducted into The Franklin Institute, a scientific organization by that age. He was also a talented baseball player and founder of Pythian Baseball Club. As Kiro 7 News reported, before Jackie Robinson ever played on a baseball diamond, Catto “also helped integrate America’s past time which was an outlet for black men, away from the discrimination, and hate they faced in the streets.”
Despite his accomplishments at that age, Catto felt he could do more but for discrimination. And so he entered into politics at the age of 24. In 1863, after the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania, he responded to a call for emergency troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies with Black soldiers and White officers — the 5th Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Catto also helped raise all-Black regiments with Frederick Douglass.
According to NPR, Catto at the time would walk through the Black neighborhoods of Philadelphia with posters that read: “Men of color, to arms to arms, now or never.” He believed that Black men were brave and could fight and sacrifice for the union. At the end of the day, Catto earned the rank of major for his efforts in recruiting even though he did not see action during the Civil War.
But there was another problem. During the war, relatives and friends could not visit Black soldiers who were injured because they were not allowed to ride on streetcars. So Catto and other Black people decided to do something about it. A year after the war, he led a campaign to desegregate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn public transit system.
Dan Biddle, who co-wrote a book about Catto titled, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, said that the streetcar campaign began quietly, with “meetings” and “letters”. But Catto wanted more.
“While we can find very few instances of civil disobedience prior to that, somewhere Catto figured out that was the way to do it. And we believe what he did is organized pregnant women, he organized college students, to simply go on the street cars en masse,” Biddle said.
His action was unthinkable at the time, Biddle added. Catto then turned to voting rights for Blacks. A year after Congress ratified the 15th amendment granting Black people the right to vote, Catto registered thousands of them. He saw politics as “a platform for transformative change”, Aaron Smith, a professor in the Department of Africology and African American studies at Temple University, told Kiro 7 News.
Catto urged Blacks to register as Republicans because the party had supported the amendment. In 1870, Blacks voted for the first time in Philadelphia and elected Republican candidates. Democrats were not okay with that and decided to keep Blacks from voting during the following year’s election. And so ahead of the 1871 election, gangs of white thugs went to Black neighborhoods to discourage residents from voting and killed several Black men.
On Election Day, October 10, 1871, Catto went to the Mayor asking for protection after the killings. But he was killed that same day while walking home, near his front door. Frank Kelly, a Democratic Party operative, confronted Catto and shot him to death.
Catto’s murder became an international story, carried by various newspapers including The Times of London and The New National Era. It led to a public outcry. Biddle said his funeral was described as “the biggest public funeral in the city perhaps ever at that point, rivaling that of Civil War heroes.”
Kelly, who was eventually captured after fleeing town, was returned to Philadelphia for trial but an all-white jury exonerated him.
Catto may not be known by many today but he lives on around Philadelphia in the form of his statue and a mural near an elementary school. Three decades after his death, the O.V. Catto Lodge was also formed in his honor in Philadelphia.