Octavius Valentine Catto was born of mixed-race parents in slave-holding South Carolina. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a free woman from the prominent mixed race DeReef family; since one’s status at birth came from one’s mother, Octavius was born free. His father, William T. Catto, was a freed slave who had become a Presbyterian minister.
William Catto moved the family out of Charleston, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, a city that had long been opposed to slavery and where free blacks had far more opportunities than they had in the South.
Octavius began his education in segregated schools in Philadelphia, though he spent some time in the otherwise all-white Allentown Academy in Allentown, N.J. In 1854, he returned to Philadelphia, where he attended the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) run by the Quakers (later renamed Cheyney University), the country’s first historically black institution of higher education. The ICY had been founded as a trade school but had changed its curriculum to liberal arts and classics by the time Catto arrived. Catto graduated from the ICY in 1858, then spent a year in advanced studies under a black scholar in Washington, D.C. He returned to Philadelphia in 1859, where he was appointed as a teacher of English and mathematics at the ICY by its principal, Ebenezer Bassett, an African-American graduate of Yale and future ambassador to Haiti.
Along with teaching at the ICY, Catto was involved in the Banneker Institute, an African-American scholarly organization. He was also elected to the Franklin Institute of Science, over the strenuous opposition of a significant percentage of its white members.
During this period Catto also became an activist on racial issues. He argued against the common practice of appointing incompetent or racist white teachers to black schools and pointed out the difficulties that even highly qualified blacks had in finding jobs. He also began agitating for abolition of slavery and for voting rights for blacks, the latter a cause that he would continue to champion—and that would eventually lead to his murder.
The Civil War and Activism
When the Civil War broke out, Catto saw an opportunity to work for the end of slavery and expanded rights for black citizens. He went to Washington, DC, and got involved in the inner circles of the Republican Party to push for abolition. He also realized that black contributions to the war effort could build support for equal rights. He raised a volunteer regiment of black soldiers led by white officers, but the army rejected the unit since blacks were not authorized to fight. Edward Stanton, the Secretary of War, would overrule the army on this point, but by the time that happened the regiment had dispersed back to their homes.
Nonetheless, a clear decision had been made that would allow Catto and others to raise troops for the Union cause. He teamed up with Frederick Douglass to raise up 11 black regiments from the Philadelphia area that saw action in the war. Catto himself was given the rank of major, though he never saw combat.
Catto became increasingly committed to the Republican Party during the war as the only hope for blacks to gain equal rights. He joined the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, a Republican organization dedicated to getting blacks the right to vote. In 1864, he met with black leaders from around the country in Syracuse, New York, for the National Convention of Colored Men. The Convention formed the National Equal Rights League, an organization dedicated to promoting racial equality in the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected as the organization’s first president.
Catto’s troops trained outside Philadelphia, but in areas serviced by the city’s horse-drawn trolleys. Unfortunately, the trolleys refused to carry black passengers, and so the soldiers’ families were unable to visit them. Further, black women and children were often kicked off the trolleys by conductors and white passengers in all kinds of weather. Catto was determined to see this end, and was willing to use civil disobedience to achieve his ends. A reporter for the New York Times told the story:
THE RIGHTS OF COLORED CITIZENS.; Curious Affair in Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA, Wednesday, May 17  — 2 P.M.
Last evening a colored man got into a Pine-street passenger car, and refused all entreaties to leave the car, where his presence appeared to be not desired.
The conductor of the car, fearful of being fined for ejecting him, as was done by the Judges of one of our courts in a similar case, ran the car off the track, detached the horses, and left the colored man to occupy the car all by himself.
The colored man still firmly maintains his position in the car, having spent the whole of the night there.
The conductor looks upon the part he enacted in the affair as a splendid piece of strategy.
The matter creates quite a sensation in the neighborhood where the car is standing, and crowds of sympathizers flock around the colored man.
Even still, the city would not pass a law prohibiting discrimination against blacks on the trolleys. The following year, Catto proposed a series of resolutions at the Union Club of Philadelphia denouncing the treatment of blacks on the trolleys and calling on whites to stand up for blacks when they saw discrimination as part of their Christian duty. One of his resolutions read:
Resolved, That while men and women of a Christian community can sit unmoved and in silence, and see women barbarously thrown from the cars, — and while our courts of justice fail to grant us redress for acts committed in violation of the chartered privileges of these railroad companies, — 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.
Catto also worked with two U.S. senators to pass a bill in Pennsylvania that prohibited discrimination in transportation across the entire state. When the Philadelphia trolleys continued their old practices, Catto’s fiancée, Carolyn Le Count, took the city to court and forced them to comply with the new state law (1867).
The parallels between what Catto did in Philadelphia and what Rosa Parks would do in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, are striking. Catto succeeded in desegregating public transportation in Pennsylvania through his civil disobedience in much the same way that Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience set in motion the events that led the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in public transportation nationally.
Baseball and the Negro League
Along with his academic, political, legal, and military work, Catto was also an athlete. Like many other American academics at the time, Catto took up the British sport of cricket, but then switched over to the newly emerging American sport of baseball. Catto was the co-founder of the Pythian Base Ball Club and played shortstop for them. He promoted baseball in the black community so strenuously that Philadelphia would emerge as a major center for Negro League Baseball.
With the support of the white Athletic Base Ball Club, they petitioned to join the new Pennsylvania Base Ball Association in 1868; when it became obvious they would not be accepted, they withdrew their application. Nonetheless, they challenged many white teams to games, and in 1869 they played the Olympic Ball Club in the first formal baseball game with teams from different races.
On the political and legal front, Catto continued to fight for equal rights for blacks and especially for voting rights. The 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, was proposed in 1869 and passed in 1870. Catto spent the time from 1869 to 1871 travelling in Pennsylvania educating blacks about what the amendment would mean for them.
Unfortunately, the prospect of large numbers of black voters—invariably Republican—threatened the political status quo. Irish immigrants, who were closely tied to the Democratic party, felt especially threatened. They were already competing with blacks for housing and jobs, and now their political power was in jeopardy. In Catto’s own precinct, the 15th Amendment could have switched the balance of power away from the Democrats to the Republicans.
The result was large-scale voter intimidation, violence, and riots to prevent blacks from voting. The police, many of whom were Irish, frequently refused to protect blacks or allow them to vote.
Catto was on his way to the polls when Frank Kelly, an associate of the local Democratic Party boss, recognized him. He shot Catto in the back three times, and one of the bullets pierced Catto’s heart. He was pronounced dead at the police station where his body had been taken.
Catto was given a military funeral, the largest funeral Philadelphia had ever seen.
Kelly escaped to Chicago, where he lived in hiding for six years. Eventually he was discovered, arrested, and sent to Philadelphia for trial. Three blacks and three whites who had witnessed the murder identified him as the gunman. Nonetheless, the jury, composed entirely of working-class whites, acquitted him.
Emma Jones Lapsansky, “’Discipline to the Mind’: Philadelphia’s Banneker Institute, 1854-1872,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 117.1-2 (Jan.-April, 1993): 83-102,
Christopher Munden, “Octavius Catto: Philadelphia’s ‘Forgotten Hero,’” Constitution Daily, February 8, 2012.
Kile, “Octavius Catto,” Moral Heroes, December 5, 2012.
Chapman Smith, “The Triumph and Tragedy of Octavius V. Catto,” UShistory.org.