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NEW #VRABlackHistory 2024, February 5th, 2024- Octavius Valentine Catto (1839 – 1871): A Black History Hero Forgotten No More

February 5 @ 12:00 am

Feb. 5th 2024- Octavius Valentine Catto (1839 – 1871): A Black History Hero Forgotten No More, NEW #VRABlackHistory 2024


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We hope you enjoy our #VRABlackHistory Series 2024

From the Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance

Please note, if you’d like to opt out from only the upcoming daily Black History Month Voting Rights Alliance #VRABlackHistory series, please email carnwine@tjcoalition.org. Unsubscribing at the bottom of this email unsubscribes you to all Transformers, not just from this special February Series.

Octavius Valentine Catto (1839 – 1871)

A Black History Hero Forgotten No More

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The Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance, in honor of Black History Month, are reviving the daily special series devoted to sharing the legacies and stories of the sheroes, heroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage. This series was created in 2017 and will add 13 NEW articles this year. In addition to these daily newsletters all February long, this series also incorporates daily social media posts; an interactive calendar; and, website blog posts to spread the word broadly.

Feel free to publish on your social media outlets, with credit given to the Transformative Justice Coalition. If you’d like us to share you sharing this series, be sure to send any publications to carnwine@tjcoalition.org so we can repost!

We encourage everyone to share this series to your networks and on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory and to use this series for school projects. You can also tweet us @TJC_DC to share your own facts.

Others can sign up for the daily articles at VotingRightsAlliance.org

This article was curated by Caitlyn Caitlyn Arnwine (formerly Caitlyn Cobb) in 2024. There is a complete source list at the bottom of this article. All sources are also linked throughout the article in green.

Today, February 5th, 2024, we honor Octavius V. Catto. “Octavius Valentine Catto (1839 – 1871) was one of the most influential African American leaders in Philadelphia during the 19th century. Inspired by the Civil War, Catto became an adamant activist for the abolition of slavery and establishment of equal rights for all men, regardless of race. He successfully fought for the desegregation of Philadelphia’s public trolleys [he organized this with Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass, and in addition to having people hold meetings and write letters, it is believed Catto organized pregnant women and college students to simply go on the street cars en masse!] and ratification of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, which bars voting discrimination on the basis of race [which allowed African American men to vote, but not African American women]. In addition to his work as a Civil Rights activist, he was also an educator [“Catto himself had become the highest paid teacher in Philadelphia” by 1870!], scholar, writer, and accomplished baseball player – helping to recognize Philadelphia as a Negro baseball league focal point…Catto was only thirty-two when he was shot and killed outside of his home on Philadelphia’s South Street on October 10, 1871, the first election day that African Americans were allowed to vote. His activism and efforts to get African Americans to the polls led to his murder – a violent action that was seen as a result of widespread intimidation by whites to deter the black vote.”

A Black History Hero No Longer Forgotten

“…[I]f you visit Octavius Catto’s grave t Eden Cemetery, just outside Philadelphia, his epitaph reads: ‘The Forgotten Hero’.”

Oftentimes, when writing these articles, there is no good summary I can point to of someone’s voting rights work- which is the same reason this Series even came to be. I was asked to just link to articles in 2017. I grew up in Primarily White Institutions. I knew nothing about Black History, despite being African American myself. So when I started researching for the project in 2017, I became enthralled- and with it came the anger at the erasure of the our history, especially of our fight for suffrage. I spend hours researching to make sure I can make comprehensive articles since not just one often does the suffrage work justice because teaching and learning Black History is important especially the fight for voting rights.

Therefore, I am pleased to say that there are people and organizations that have already made comprehensive writings on the life and legacy of Octavius V. Catto and that he is no longer a forgotten hero. Please enjoy my curated findings of everything you would like to know about him, from his statue to his suffrage activism to his fighting for equality in sports and desegregation, his work during the Civil War, and so much more.

The Best place to get total comprehensive information is to explore the link below:

Independence Hall Assoc. – Octavius V. Catto: Forging Citizenship and Opportunity – Octavius Catto’s Legacy

This web portal feature is hosted and managed by Independence Hall Association, owner of ushistory.org. It was undertaken with the erection of the Catto Memorial at Philadelphia City Hall. Dedicated in September 2017, the memorial is the first public monument in Philadelphia on public lands honoring an African American, Octavius V. Catto.

Octavius V. Catto was a 19th Century civil rights pioneer, who worked to achieve citizenship rights and opportunity for African Americans. His efforts in the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, a state affiliate of the National Equal Rights League, helped to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Catto also enabled desegregation of public transportation in Philadelphia, expanded education opportunities for blacks, advanced military service and voting rights for black men, and sought to integrate early Base Ball opportunities for black teams. He was assassinated on the streets of Philadelphia on October 10, 1871, along with three other black men, exercising their newly earned right to vote as American citizens.

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Below are some webpages from the above source that could be helpful in sorting through to what you want to find:

Philadelphia and America’s Civil Rights Legacy

(Top image from the core exhibit of the African American Museum of Philadelphia)

Although frequently overshadowed by New York City, Philadelphia offers an important lens for studying America’s national heritage around civil rights.

The recent rediscovery Octavius Valentine Catto, who was in the second generation of free blacks in Philadelphia after Forten, brings to light the frequently neglected connection between America’s civil rights stories of the earlier period and the subsequent struggles in the 20th and in current centuries. This long arc of the civil rights history is often treated as separate occurrences, not broadly within a long timeline. This portal seeks to correct this presentation by undertaking to reveal the networks that African Americans built across the nation and across generations to address inequities.

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Civil Rights Timeline with Catto

Catto left South Carolina at the age of seven and arrived in the Philadelphia region, home to the largest free black community in the North in 1848. This community in Catto’s new home had an early legacy of strong institution building and long-standing traditions of advocacy for civil rights, dating from the early founding of the nation. These early African American activists and community builders were the first generation of free blacks on whose shoulders Catto would rise. The schooling Catto received and the intellectual and political thought of this community, which his father, William, helped to shape, enabled Octavius to become “the most magnetic and promising leader that the Philadelphia black community had yet produced.” (Russell F. Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History)

The greater Philadelphia region had deep anti-slavery traditions and laws, despite its close economic connections to the Southern cotton economy. However, there were many hostile elements in Catto’s new world, including racial and ethnic conflicts. William Wells Brown, American abolitionist and novelist, said of Philadelphia: “Colorphobia is more rampant here than in the pro-slavery, negro-bating city of New York.” Philadelphia was a border city with such strong southern sentiments and alliances that Abraham Lincoln was concerned that it would lean to the Confederate side during the Civil War. This environment made a mark on Catto and is part of America’s Civil Rights story. The timeline presents these influences and forces.

Catto’s death also served as a catalyst in the continuing struggle for social justice well into the 20th Century, and many activities and individuals of that period have connections to him and his legacy. Catto’s legacy is an important marker in the black community and among civil rights advocates. He represented the second generation of aspiring young African Americans among a small middle class and elites after the American Revolution. Their lives were in stark contrast to the majority of blacks, both free and enslaved, in America, who lived in poverty or had fragile existences. Catto marks the wave of activists that marched on in the late 19th century and the subsequent group that matured into the early 20th century. This timeline also shows this development. The efforts of all of them evidence the long struggle for equality and justice that has been the American Civil Rights story. You can see key events by scrolling through each timeline.

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Lesson Plans and Resources

This section focuses teaching resources beyond traditional textbooks and provides ways to expand the learning in the Independence Hall Association digital textbook provided on this site. The section emphasizes bringing primary sources into classroom teaching as a resource for enhancing education.

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Catto and His Times and Leadership

…Pennsylvania and New Jersey had abolished slavery by 1804, and both were strong areas for abolition and Underground Railroad activities…By Octavius’ formative years, Philadelphia was central to the abolition movement and in 1856. When Catto was 17, Philadelphia became central in the formation of the Republican Party, when the party’s first convention was held there. Catto’s world connected him to the most important ideas and issues of his day and provided an environment that nurtured and expanded his thinking, as well as shaped his core beliefs in what he should expect of and for himself, as well as from others. As a well-educated young black adult, he knew that he had an obligation to become a leader. Catto would later state this core belief in a commencement speech at the Institute for Colored Youth in 1864, when he spoke of “…the immense debt which those…that led the civilized world, owe to their educated men…”.

Therefore, when he graduated from the Institute of Colored Youth at age 19 in 1858, Catto knew, “as an educated man”, he was expected by his family, community and himself, to take his place as a leader. This was not unique to Catto. Other children among Philadelphia’s black elites, like Jacob White, Jr., Caroline LeCount, and Charlotte Forten, shared the similar view.

He worked to break down racial barriers that limited black access to Philadelphia streetcars, in military service during the Civil War, and to cultural institutions like the Franklin Institute. His efforts to broaden black participation in early base ball reflected his belief not in integration within teams, but a belief that black teams should be allow to compete against white base ball clubs…He worked to break down racial barriers that limited black access to Philadelphia streetcars, in military service during the Civil War, and to cultural institutions like the Franklin Institute. His efforts to broaden black participation in early base ball reflected his belief not in integration within teams, but a belief that black teams should be allow to compete against white base ball clubs.

He was not a strong vocal advocate for women to have equitable status with men. However, he worked side by side with many women to expand rights for black men and was protective of women, who were not treated in the way their social class would entitle them, if they were of the white race. He supported the education of women to be trained as teachers, an acceptable Victorian occupation for women.

Catto’s most significant leadership can be demonstrated through his work in the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, an arm of the National Equal Rights League. It is here, as an officer and leader in the League, that Catto worked side-by-side with other national level African American men like Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston and Henry Highland Garnet.

Connected to this work and the alliances he forged therein, Catto took on leadership roles in an all-black brigade in the Pennsylvania National Guard, formed by General Louis Wagner, the white officer who oversaw Camp William Penn, and through the Republican Party in a Reconstruction assignment in Washington, D.C. to establish schools for the newly freedmen. Catto’s imprint on the latter, was important in creating the school that became the premier black high school in the country, the M Street School (later Dunbar High School), whose notable graduates included civil rights activists, Sadie Tanner and Charles Hamilton Houston (the “Man Who Killed Jim Crow”). The school would also provide employment for the likes of Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, before he moved to become a professor at Howard University.

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More Recommended Reading:

While several articles went into the research of this article, the ones below deserve honorable mention, and the author of this article encourages you to read them further for more in-depth analysis and information about topics not fully explored in above:

‘The Forgotten Hero’ Of The Civil Rights Movement- NPR

Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars, raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War, and pushed for black voting rights – all before the age of 32. Despite all that, he’s barely remembered today. But a new book, “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America”, sheds life on his groundbreaking work.

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Oct. 10, 1871: Octavius Catto Killed on Election Day in Philadelphia – Zinn Education Project

Catto’s influence and advocacy, however, drew ire from white supremacists in the region, who organized in violent opposition to the civil rights progress of Philadelphia’s Black community.

On Election Day in 1871, Democratic ward leaders launched a series of intimidation tactics to suppress Black suffrage, which turned into rioting against resistant African American voters.

Catto had cast his vote early that morning and learned of the terror in the streets while on a lunch break from teaching. Out of concern for their safety, he sent his students home for the day and found assurance from the mayor that the violence would end without further intervention. One of the anti-Black voting rights vigilantes shot and killed Catto on his walk home that evening.

The aftermath brought the largest funeral procession seen in Philadelphia since President Lincoln’s in 1865, as Catto was laid to rest in Lebanon Cemetery.

Students, politicians, preachers, and thousands of others mourned and eulogized him in Pennsylvania and beyond. Catto’s killer left town and was finally brought to trial in 1877 when a sympathetic all-white jury ruled him not guilty.

In 2017, over 140 years after Catto’s assassination, A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial was unveiled at the southwest apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Out of approximately 1,500 public sculptures maintained throughout the city, Catto’s is the first ever to honor an individual African American.

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A monument at last for Octavius Catto, who changed Philadelphia

Read an interview about when his statue was erected.

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Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Biddle, Daniel R., Dubin, Murray (August 13, 2010)

Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Biddle, Daniel R., Dubin, Murray(August 13, 2010). Buy from Amazon with Kindle, Paperback, or hardcover using this link.

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“A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial” (2017) by Branly Cadet

  • TITLE: A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial
  • ARTIST: Branly Cadet (b. 1966)
  • YEAR: 2017
  • LOCATION: Southwest corner of Philadelphia City Hall
  • MEDIUM: Bronze statue on granite base, five granite pillars, stainless steel ballot box on granite base

Over 140 years after his death, a monument to Catto was unveiled on the apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Efforts to create the memorial began in 2003 when Mayor Jim Kenney, then a city councilman, read about the activist and was surprised that he had never heard of such an influential figure. After learning more about Catto and his life, Kenney approached the Catto Memorial Fund about raising money to erect a monument to the activist.

The City Hall site for the Catto Memorial inspired Cadet to design a piece that highlighted Catto’s political efforts in the city. The 12′ tall bronze statue at the center of the memorial shows Catto mid-stride with his palms and chest facing forward. He walks away from five granite blocks that stand behind him, which represent an 1860s streetcar. He strides towards the stainless-steel and granite box in front of him, which represents a 19th century ballot box. Bronze plaques and inscriptions on the pillars describe Catto’s life and inform viewers about how his accomplishments reshaped Philadelphia. The sculpture was unveiled on September 26, 2017.

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Click on the video screenshot below to be directed to the YouTube channel “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and their 14-minute video entitled “Octavius V. Catto, A Legacy for the 21st Century”.

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February 5
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