Catto and His Times and Leadership

Catto: His Times and Leadership, a Commentary

To understand Catto, one must not only explore the accomplishments of his life, but also delve into the context of his times. We often shape our view of historical figures by seeing them within our contemporary times. The drawback to this approach is that we are overlooking the way individuals lived in the world they lived in and how that world shaped who they became. We sometimes also attribute things to individuals that are not appropriate or are ahistorical. To some extent this has happened to Catto, whom some today call “the Martin Luther King of his times”. By defining Catto in this way, we do not understand how the worlds within which both men lived differed and also how the forces and events of their worlds shaped the men differently. This does not mean that comparisons cannot be made between King and Catto, but what it does mean is that we should look deeply as to what makes them unique characters of their times and how each uniquely contributed to America’s civil rights history.

This perspective also helps to enlarge our understanding of the trajectory of America’s civil rights story. This approach helps us to better understand what Martin Luther King meant when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is through the timeline of history that we can better understand why it took over 80 years after Catto’s assassination for landmark Supreme Court case, Brown V. Board of Education, to declare Jim Crow in public education illegal, and over 90 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to outlaw the discriminatory voting practices adopted in southern states after the Civil War, when the Constitution granted voting rights in 1870. We can also better appreciate how Catto and his generation bent the moral universe towards justice by putting in place the Constitutional laws and frameworks that made the Modern Civil Rights Movement possible. Additionally, that it was the continuing struggle by African Americans and their allies over the next 90 years that forced more the realization of the justice Catto sought. This lens then also enables us to better understand the unfinished work that remained at the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Catto’s world differed from King’s. Catto’s identity and, although he was a religious man, groomed by his religious father, Catto’s social activism was not rooted in religious beliefs like Martin Luther King’s. How he sought and defined justice reflected his secular Victorian world. The years following Catto’s death produced another environment that created the social gospel philosophy of Martin Luther King. King’s deep religious faith and his vocation as a minister embraced this philosophy and produced King’s unique brand of social theory. The environment also produced legends of African American civil rights activists and important organizations.

In 1839, Octavius Valentine Catto was born into a free black family with privilege and social connections in South Carolina, but also extending into the North. He came of age during the Victorian era in America, a time known for strict standards of personal morality and class structure. It was also the age of Horatio Alger, a novelist known as the father of the American Dream and whose books espoused “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps”. The Catto family left South Carolina initially hoping that his father William Catto, a millwright (comparable to a civil engineer today) and emerging Presbyterian minister, would become a missionary in Liberia. Unfortunately, William Catto’s dream vanished because the Presbytery in South Carolina thought he was promoting anti-slavery sentiments and possibly violence. Fearing his life, William Catto moved his family northward and eventually to the Philadelphia area, where there were with family connections both in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Pennsylvania and New Jersey had abolished slavery by 1804, and both were strong areas for abolition and Underground Railroad activities.

In this new environment, Octavius Catto received a classical “private” school (pay tuition) education, comparable to that given white elites during his time. He eventually was enrolled in the Institute for Colored Youth, which provided one of the finest educations possible for black students. His family was also part of the black elite class, consisting of business men, ministers, educators and intellectuals. The Cattos lived in a vibrant and politically active northern black community that had established important founding black institution, like St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, long before they arrived. These black elites were vocal social activists, dating back before the nation’s founding. The Philadelphia black community also built and maintained strong connections with other black communities throughout the North, as well as with some southern communities. 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. This world view included the following elements:

  • Entitlement due to elite accomplishments, particularly in education. They believed that they belonged in America and that blacks can become accomplished through education. They also believed that elite blacks were not lesser than poor whites, but equal to whites in the middle class.
  • Confidence in demonstrating skills, knowledge and learning.
  • Education as the path to upward mobility. (They put an emphasis on expanding public education and often pursued education a career.)
  • Citizenship rights are deserved due to accomplishments.
  • Social and political access on par with white middle class is deserved due to accomplishments. But, at the same time these individuals were strong advocates for black institutions led by blacks.

In addition to the above elements, Catto and most blacks believed manhood rights for black men were a primary concern. The Victorian era placed strong emphasis on the central role of men, which included strength, citizenship participation, pride in work, and protectiveness over their families. In Victorian American manhood wasexpressed in a belief in the superiority of the “civilized world”, manners, religion, military service, and sporting competition (“to educate one’s mind, one had to educate one’s body”). In the social context of whites, black males were often viewed as lacking in the ability to participate in society in these ways due to their perceived inferiority. Catto’s words in the 1864 Alma Mater speech, highlight his concerns: “The colored man…has within him an aspiration and capability to rise by faith, labor, and perseverance to a respectable place among his competitors…the intelligent foreigner and migrating Northerner.”

Catto’s social world molded him to be a social justice radical and an activist, while at the same time he embraced many Victorian sensibilities. 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. Catto strongly advocated for the rights of “deserving” educated black men, and worked, as an educator, to enable other blacks to rise (“pull up by their bootstraps”) through their education and contribute to the “civilized world”. 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. There are no surviving records showing that he supported the advanced training of Institute for Colored Youth female alums like Rebecca Cole and Caroline Still Anderson, who went on to become early African American medical doctors. There is evidence that he resented Fanny Coppin’s appointment as head of the Institute for Colored Youth over him, even though her education credential were superior to his.

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. The Pennsylvania League was also among the most influential of the affiliates that form the National Equal Rights League. Both the national organization and the Pennsylvania affiliate were founded in 1864 in response to the systematic segregation and exclusion long affecting nearly every aspect of black northern lives. During Catto’s time, there were 300,000 African Americans living in northern states by 1870. Of these, 65,000 lived in Pennsylvania and blacks made up 1.9% of the state population. In Philadelphia systemic racism was also strongly felt, because citizenship rights and privileges had been stripped away from black men, when the state enlarged the franchise for white men and barred previous black voters of the franchise. The justification was that “all men are free and equal” but this did not apply to black citizens in a political sense, “only in a sense of nature”…black men should not be able to vote as they do not have any “conceptions of civil liberty.” This was Catto’s racially defined world.

The work of Catto and his peers in the Pennsylvania League was motivated in part by a growing spirit of optimism and patriotism generated by the emancipation and the recruitment of black troops in the Union Army during the Civil War. Their effort in recruiting United States Colored Troops and training some 11,000 troops at Camp William Penn, just outside of Philadelphia, was a significant contribution to the Civil War effort. The 8,612 troops recruited from Pennsylvania were the most African American troops from any northern area in the country. The recruitment work also enabled the League members to forge important alliance with white allies (particularly in the Union League of Philadelphia), who advanced their efforts to achieve legal equality through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In these alliances Catto and his peers sought to reassure white leaders that African Americans were law-abiding, moral people who wanted neither “to lower the standards of refinement, intelligence and honor, nor to disrupt the society nor achieve integrated social equality”. League members spoke about “strict standards of personal morality.” They also believed in and supported a form of black nationalism through black-led and operated institutions. At the same time many members expressed their concerns about alienating their white customers, if they opened their business to serve blacks.

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.

Catto and his associates’ secular vision of equality, therefore, was complicated. On the one hand, it challenged the racial sentiments of Victorian whites, by ascribing the expansion of citizenship rights for black men, but they rooted their reasoning in Victorian models of manhood and accomplishment. They strove to be able to build and maintain strong black institution, but they realized that there were limits to achieving full social integration. They were also adamant about civic integration…the ability to participate in public spaces. Their secular vision equality had its limits when it came to black women.

Catto’s reform efforts were ultimately defeated by Southern white intransigence and violence, as well as Northern white indifference, neglect and violence. It was Northern white race violence that took his life. Nonetheless, Catto and associates put the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments “on the books” the U.S. Constitution. These amendments changed the meaning to the Constitution forever and produced what historian Eric Foner calls the “Second American Revolution”. These amendments are what Charles Sumner called “Sleeping Giants”. Catto also left an enduring mark on the trajectory of black education in the United States. Following Catto’s assassination on October 10, 1871, black civil rights activism in the years between Catto and MLK focused on anti-violence and lynching, equalization v. de-segregation, and black agency and nationalism. One can only posit what more Catto would have contributed, if not for his premature death or whether his world view would have changed as the nation moved into the 20th Century.

Author: V. Chapman-Smith, V.P. for Education Initiatives, O.V. Catto Memorial Fund

V. Chapman-Smith is the education lead for Catto Memorial Fund Board and was the project manager for the Catto education year-long initiative with the Philadelphia School District. She was trained in the history doctoral program at Temple University and has had a distinguished career of over 30 years of executive leadership, focused on organizational capacity building with an emphasis on using cultural assets and history to improve urban education and civic life. She’s a specialist in civil rights and social history.

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