Music Feature

Black History Month: Who Was Octavius Catto?

by Joshua Pelta-Heller
Assassinated by "rioters," as the memorial plaque says? Probably not a fair dismissal.
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One-hundred and forty-seven years ago, exactly 90 years before Rosa Parks popularized civil disobedience on public transit, Octavius Valentine Catto tried first, right here in Philadelphia.  Although his presence was undesired, as the New York Times reported the following day, Catto boarded a horse-drawn passenger car serving Pine Street on a May evening in 1865, and refused to get off.  So the conductor got off instead, after guiding his car off of its tracks, and as the Times article continued to report, left the defiant “colored man” to spend the remainder of his night on board on noble principle, drawing a sympathetic local crowd.

The arc of Catto’s incredible life saw his education and scholarship, a short military career that earned him a commissioned rank of major in the Pennsylvania National Guard, an athletic prowess that helped establish our city as a major hub of professional baseball’s Negro League, and his fervent activism in support of abolition and civil rights in arenas both sport and public.  On the baseball field, Catto so persistently pursued the official permission for his all-black Pythians to engage their white counterparts, that in September of 1869, preempting major league baseball’s desegregation almost eighty years later, they were able to play – and to beat handily – the Philadelphia City Items, a white team.  That same year, Catto enlisted the assistance of progressive US Senators to support the passage of a bill in Pennsylvania’s legislature that prohibited the segregation of Philadelphia’s public transit, a bill enforced early in its legislative life with a criminal penalty levied against a conductor who refused Catto’s fiancée admission to ride four years after his own impromptu demonstration. 

Catto did more in his lifetime than most men, all before he turned 33. 

In October of 1871, during the Philadelphia City elections – the first elections subsequent to the passage of the 15th amendment just one year earlier to Constitutionally sanction the enfranchisement of black men – then-Professor Octavius Catto was cut down by three rounds issued from the revolver of a stranger, Mr. Frank Kelly.  An ethnic Irishman, Kelly had been charged with Catto’s assassination reportedly by Democratic Party Boss and friend Bill McMullen, under the tacit but – of course – unofficial authorization of the city’s mostly Irish police force of the day.  As Catto sought to enlist the aid of his fellow National Guardsmen to help protect black voters acting to exercise their new civil rights, he was accosted by his home, and shot in the back near 8th Street, on a strip of South Street where today stands a Startbucks, a police station, a garden, a handful of homes and storefronts, and, if you look up, a small blue placard with misleading information, but nevertheless memorializing the accomplishements and the life of one of our city’s most interesting historical figures, now a martyr in the struggle for equal rights. 

Six days following his murder, the public viewing of Octavius Catto at the city’s armory was attended by thousands in mourning, a testament to the volume of people whom he had inspired and whose lives he had in some way managed to help improve.  Thousands more lined Broad Street to attend his procession.  A eulogy in a local newspaper read, "Catto did not die because the murderer was his natural enemy. He died because a poor demented wretch was taught that the black man had no right the white man should respect."  Black leaders demanded swift justice, but Frank Kelly had escaped.  Arrested in Chicago six years later, Kelly was returned to Philadelphia, where he was acquitted of all charges.

Originally buried in Lebanon Cemetary in Philadelphia, Catto’s remains were later reinterred in Delaware County, where another recently erected memorial now stands to honor him. 

On the anniversary of his birthday, this February 22nd, during Black History Month, and in the cultural interest of this city and its lofty birthrite legacy of champions of freedom, equality, and emancipation from oppression, Philadelphians should reflect for a moment on the lifetime of brilliant achievements and causes advanced by one of our own.

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