“A Hero Ahead of His Time”
Ninety years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat because of her race, Octavius Catto defied a conductor’s request to vacate a horse-drawn tram to make a statement about racial injustice. Catto used his intelligence and his physical presence to challenge many social ills of his time. Most importantly, his words and actions revealed his vision for a nation bound by unity rather than racial divisions and inequality.
Octavius Valentine Catto was born February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina. His father, William T. Catto was a former slave turned ordained minister. His mother Sarah Isabella Cain was a member of a distinguished mixed-race family in Charleston. His parent’s prominence in society afforded Octavius educational opportunities even few whites would experience. As a youth he attended an all-white school and seemed to exhibit his father’s articulate, inspiring and unifying leadership skills. He continued to apply himself to his studies and graduated as valedictorian from Philadelphia’s preeminent Institute for Colored Youth. Then Catto moved to Washington D.C. for postgraduate study in the classical languages.
At the age of 20, Catto was offered a faculty position at the Institute for Colored Youth and became the Recording Secretary of the Banneker Literary Institute. A few years later Catto was inducted into the Franklin Institute of science, despite heavy opposition of the white membership. During these years Octavius Catto began to associate with leading intellectuals and leaders from around the world. Catto was often invited to speak at events and gatherings. He began using the platforms to expose the barriers of racism in society and call for changes to be made in education. Catto often brought up issues such as; the common practice of unqualified and insensitive whites being assigned teaching positions in all-black schools, the limited opportunities available to even intelligent and capable African Americans, and the need for the right to vote regardless of race.
During the Civil War in 1863, the Union Army called for emergency troops to stop the advances of the Confederate Army into Pennsylvania. Octavius Catto had already been working behind the scenes in Washington D.C. trying to influence political leaders to agree on emancipation from slavery and improvements to black citizenship. Seeing the need for troops as an opportunity to prove black equality and to secure slaves their freedom, Catto immediately recruited a company of volunteer soldiers. The company was initially turned down, so Catto teamed up with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, eventually raising eleven regiments who were given the opportunity to fight.
“There Must Come a Change!” -O.V. Catto
Catto didn’t limit himself to teaching and organizing soldiers during the war, he invested nearly all of his free time into securing equal rights. Octavius was elected as the Corresponding Secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, served as the Vice President of the State Convention of Colored People, and became an activist for removing racial barriers in the Union states. Octavius traveled all around the Northern states speaking on behalf of the 15th Amendment and encouraging Northern politicians to ratify the amendment and guarantee blacks the right to vote.
When the Civil War ended, Catto decided to use his love for baseball to help unite blacks and whites. He believed baseball was another way in which African American’s could display independence, skill and equality. As player and manager of the Pythians he worked with friendly white teams like the Philadelphia Athletics to help his black team gain official status within the Pennsylvania Base Ball Association. Rather than give up when the team was denied membership, Catto decided to organize his own matches between black and white baseball teams. Due to their great success, the Pythians would begin the swell of black athletes that would change American baseball and build a sense of pride and respect in the African American community.
Even while playing baseball, Octavius Catto continued his civil rights efforts. Philadelphia, at the time, was enforcing segregation on the trolley car system. Blacks were continuously ejected from the street cars at the whim of the conductors and white passengers. This included black women and children during times of high wind and rain. Incensed by the injustice, Catto fearlessly planned to use civil disobedience and peaceful protest tactics to bring more attention the trolley car segregation. One night Octavius boarded a car and was asked to leave by the conductor. Octavious explained his reasoning and remained seated. Not wanting legal trouble, the conductor unhitched the horses and left Catto sitting in the abandoned car all night. By morning a crowd had formed and the press showed up to document the odd scene, including a writer of the New York Times.
A year later, when situations had hardly improved, Catto presented a series of resolutions at the Union League of Philadelphia. These resolutions highlighted the glaring injustices and the lack of civility by the conductors. But more importantly, the resolutions called on fellow white citizens and those who considered themselves civil “to cease to remain silent witnesses” and to demonstrate their sincerity by “an interference in our behalf.” Catto also worked with US Senators Thaddeus Stevens and William D. Kelley to pass a “Bill of Rights” that prohibited segregation on transit systems across the state. It would be 90 years before Rosa Parks and others would achieve a similar ruling at the national level.
“We shall never rest at ease, but will agitate and work, by our means and by our influence, in court and out of court, asking aid of the press, calling upon Christians to vindicate their Christianity, and the members of the law to assert the principles of the profession by granting us justice and right, until these invidious and unjust usages shall have ceased.” – O.V. Catto
In 1869, Pennsylvania finally voted to adopt the 15th Amendment. For the next two years, Catto traveled to educate black citizens on the voting process and encouraging them to vote. However, the inclusion of black voters threatened to change the embedded political structures, and many black citizens experienced intimidation and violence leading up the election. Leaders like Catto were often targeted specifically and received little protection from the police who were known to exacerbate the violence.
Finally, on October 10, 1871, the 32 year old Catto boldly walked to cast his vote. Along the way he was harassed by whites and at one intersection a white man by the name of Frank Kelley pulled out a gun and shot Catto multiple times. One of the bullets would pierce Catto’s heart, killing him. Despite multiple white and black eyewitnesses identifying Kelly as the shooter, the all-white jury acquitted Kelley and let him walk away unpunished.
Octavius Catto was a catalyst for unity. His efforts for equal rights and educational equality ceaselessly focused on integrating blacks into American society in a way that would benefit both mutually. Though blacks accounted for less than 2% of the population of the North at the time, they were able to accomplish great strides towards equality and unity because of fearless and heroic people like Octavius Catto. Even years after his death, Catto’s heroic legacy of unity continued. Philadelphia’s often violent and sparring white and black Elk lodge leaders decided to end their conflicts in his name.
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