Not many people have heard of Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871), a professor from Philadelphia who was instrumental in securing early civil liberties for his fellow blacks in the city of brotherly love and across the nation. Anyone looking for inspiring stories for Black History Month should explore Catto’s amazing story.
In many ways Octavius Catto was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Civil War era. Like Dr. King, Catto was the son of a civically active reverend, both men had a great passion for justice in America, and they were both gifted students.
Octavius enrolled in Philadelphia’s elite private academy for free blacks, the Institute for Colored Youth (I.C.Y.). After graduating Octavius began teaching at I.C.Y.; as a professor where he cultivated his skills as an orator and continued to advocate for education and liberty.
Later, Catto became part of a coalition of prominent free blacks and successful white business leaders who desired to see the Union prevail in the Civil War. The coalition was instrumental in persuading the federal government to allow colored men to enlist and take up arms. Later in life he would become a Major in the National Guard’s Black regiment the Fifth Brigade.
After the Civil War, Catto’s concerns turned from fighting wars to ensuring the emancipated masses could enjoy the freedom promised to them by politicians and eventually guaranteed by the Constitution. Education was a large component of Catto’s message. He urged his students to move south and teach their recently freed brethren. Many heeded his call and his words were circulated as a recruiting tool: “It is the duty of every man to the extent of his interest and means, to provide for the immediate improvement of the four or five millions of ignorant and previously dependent laborers who will be thrown upon society in the reorganization of the Union.”
At home in Philadelphia, Catto focused on issues that struck at the heart of the local community. Though no formal law existed, blacks often were not allowed to ride on the private horse-drawn street rail cars that crisscrossed the city grid. The treatment of Black female passengers and black Union veterans was of particular offense. Frederick Douglass, the famous intellectual and first black guest in the White House, was himself thrown off a streetcar on two separate occasions. As a member of the Car Committee, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights League, Catto and two colleagues drafted and submitted legislation to the state legislature.
The streetcar desegregation bill was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor John W. Geary on March, 1865. In a letter congratulating Catto and his colleagues, the Republican legislators wrote, “We have found you here every week from [the bill’s] presentation to its final passage, earnestly and persistently working for it. This bill is essentially your own.” Catto and his organization achieved this feat prior to passage of the 15th Amendment.
It is in the fight for streetcar desegregation where the comparison between Dr. King and Catto becomes most striking. Not only did both men help lead successful desegregation efforts through public campaigns, but both men successfully lobbied the government to pass laws to make discrimination illegal.
In a tragic fit of irony, Catto lost his life on Election Day in 1871. A riot broke out in Philadelphia making it unsafe for people to walk alone in the streets. Catto wanted to avoid the commotion, as he was a well know figure and any venom about blacks voting would likely be directed at him if he were to be recognized. Ultimately, he was fatally shot by an assailant who escaped into the streets; despite the efforts of some white witnesses who gave chase to the gunman. It is unclear if Catto was walking to or from a polling station when he was shot, but nevertheless, the Election Day shooting of Catto is almost literary in its irony. Sadly, this is another similarity Catto shares with Dr. King—an untimely death at the hands of an assassin; a promising life cut short.
Much of the information in this post was gathered from Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin.