Catto’s People

Octavius V. Catto lived in the world of the 19th century African American middle class. His life was not like that of the majority of blacks in both South Carolina and Philadelphia, who, either enslaved or free, were had marginal economic existances or were poor. Most had little or no access to education. He was born into a privileged mulatto family, the DeReefs, in Charleston South Carolina. In Philadelphia, his father, as a prominent minister, joined the black middle class, which was composed of businessmen, school teachers, and other professionals. They were a small minority population within Philadelphia’s black community. It was this life that made Catto’s extraordinary education possible and how he built ties with black and white leaders, locally and nationally. This life also opened up ways for him to become a strong advocate for justice and equality, seeking to end slavery and expand for African Americans both opportunities and the rights and privileges that whites had at that time. This section features people in Catto’s world. Do you know who the ones feature here are? They are many others, as well. A great learning experience is to discover them all.


David Bustill Bowser
1820 – 1900

Bowser was an African American artist and political activist, who frequently used his art to express his political views. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians saw his Civil War artwork in the regimental flags carried by the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Bowser’s portrait of John Brown is one of his most famous portraitures. His works were among the first African American art to be widely viewed. A member of the distinguished family of Cyris Bustill, Bowser was engaged in many important civic activities, including the formation of Lebanon Cemetery and the recruitment of USCT soldiers. Today, he is relatively unknown, but his residence at 481N. 4th Street in Philadelphia has been marked with a Pennsylvania historical marker. It is here where he hosted John Brown.

Caroline LeCount

LeCount was one of the five students to graduate from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1863. She had been an exemplary student, who became an accomplished educator. When she was named principal of Catto Elementary school, LeCount was the second African American female to be name principal of a Philadelphia public school. From her high school days, LeCount was an ardent activist for equal rights. Together, she and O.V. Catto worked to desegregate the streetcars in Philadelphia. She was his fiancée.

Morton McMichael

McMichael, a former Civil War officer, was a founding member of the Union League of Philadelphia and the League’s 4th president. After the Civil war, McMichael was elected the first Republican Mayor of Philadelphia, serving from 1866 through 1869. At the Union League, McMichael presented Catto, Robert Purvis, Frederick Douglass, Robert Forten and others with a banner honoring their work in the passage of the 15th Amendment in Pennsylvania. The Morton McMichael Elementary School in Philadelphia was named for him.

Benjamin Tanner

Tanner was a leading clergyman, editor and intellectual of his day. Ordained as an AME minister and an editor of the church’s publication, the Christian Recorder, he became an important voice for equality and for memorizing African American heritage and contributions to the world. O.V. Catto became one of his dearest friends and it was Bishop Tanner, who first sought have a memorial erected for Catto. Tanner was among the founding members, with W.E. B. DuBois, of the American Negro Academy led by Alexander Crummell. Tanner was the father of artist Henry Ossawa Tanner and the grandfather of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.

Frannie Jackson Coppin

Born into slavery, Jackson became free when her aunt purchased her freedom at age 12. She entered Oberlin College in 1860, and while there spent her evenings giving free courses at no cost in reading and writing to free blacks. After her graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in 1865, she was appointed principal of the Ladies Department at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). In 1869, she became head of the school, replacing Ebenezer Bassett, who was appointed as Minister to Haiti by President Grant. During her 37 years at ICY, Jackson was responsible for vast education improvements. After her marriage to Rev. Levi Coppin, Jackson became a missionary with her husband in South Africa. In 1893, she was one of five African American women to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. Coppin State University in Baltimore is named in her honor. A Pennsylvania historical marker honoring Fannie is on Cheyney University’s campus off Dilworthtown and Cheyney Roads. It is among the state’s oldest historical markers, dedicated in 1912.

George Henry Boker

The Civil War was a defining moment for many in Philadelphia. It was the War that changed Boker from a Democrat to an ardent Republican, embracing the party’s principals that led to the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Boker’s name is closely interwoven with the rehabilitation of the Republican Party in Philadelphia. When the Union League of Philadelphia was founded in 1862, Boker was the leading spirit and it was through his efforts that both sentiments and support towards the Union cause prevailed in Philadelphia. His efforts forged opportunities for Catto and other leading African American activists to forge strong alliances with leading Republican politicians of the day.

Jacob C. White Jr.

From their childhood as students at the Vaux School, White and Catto forged a life-long friendship. As sons of prominent Philadelphia families, the two were in the same social and later political circles throughout their lives. They were outgoing, energetic young men on the move! White’s father was director of the Sunday school at First African Presbyterian Church; Catto’s father was the pastor. The two young men were members of the Banneker Institute and also had formed the Pythian early base ball team together. Jacob White became a highly respected educator and the first African American school principal in Philadelphia. It is the White’s family cemetery, Mount Lebanon, where Catto was buried after his assassination.

John Mercer Langston

Mercer is the first African American to be elected to public office in the United States. In 1854, he became the first African American lawyer in Ohio. Mercer was an abolitionist, educator and politician/diplomat. He and Catto worked together in the National Equal Rights League (NERL), a national network of activists working to extend black rights and suffrage in Northern states after the Civil War. Mercer led the NERL in 1864. Catto served as secretary of the Pennsylvania chapter, which extended his network of associated across the country. Mercer became head of Howard Law School. At Catto’s death, he gave a moving speech to the faculty at Howard Law, encouraging them to continue to work on the causes Catto cared about. His great-nephew is the renown poet, Langston Hughes. A historical marker honoring John Langston is on the courthouse grounds in Louisa, Virginia.

William Still

Most well-known as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and author of his account of the Underground Railroad, “The Underground Railroad Records”. Still was also a businessman, philanthropist, and life-long civil rights activist. His book, “A Brief Narrative of the Struggle for the Rights of Colored People of Philadelphia in the City Railway Cars”, describes efforts to desegregate Philadelphia streetcars. As the head of the Knights of Pythian lodge, Still provided support for Catto’s baseball team. His daughter, Caroline Still (1848-1919) was an early graduate of Women’s Medical College and became a pioneering medical doctor, working at Tuskegee Institute. A historical marker is at his residence at 244 South 12th Street, Philadelphia

Robert Purvis

Before the term “power couple” came into use in the 20th Century, Robert’s and his wife’s, Harriet Forten Purvis, joint and separate activist efforts are examples in the 19th century. Daughter of James Forten, Harriet was an African American abolitionist and first-generation suffragette. With Lucretia Mott, she formed the first biracial female abolition society, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. The Purvis’ efforts were funded using the fortune Robert inherited from his father. Robert was president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and was an officer in the American Anti-Slavery Society. At the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert made a short extemporaneous speech full of fire, declaring himself a “Disunion Abolitionist” over the crimes against Kansas by pro-slavery forces. He and Harriet worked jointly with Catto in the campaign to desegregate the Philadelphia transit system. Robert joined Catto in the work of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. Robert also served as a Commissioner of the Freedmen Bank and used his fortune to try to keep the Bank solvent. A historical marker is at Robert Purvis’ last residence at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street, Philadelphia. Another historical marker honoring the Female Abolition Society stands at 5th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia in front of the U.S. Mint.

Harriett Purvis
John Brown

Many people in the 19th century, who were against slavery, also believed that the freed people should leave the United States for Africa or the Caribbean. Not John Brown. He believed that the “Golden Rule” applied to all people and that the founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, was meant for everyone. Brown also believed slavery was such an evil that it should be ended by any means necessary. In believing that all people should be free and treated equally and with respect,Brown addressed all individuals as Mister or Miss, regardless of their race or position. He also believed that there was a point when one needed to stop talking and start taking action.
By 1856 John Brown’s presence loomed large in Philadelphia. O.V. Catto was 17 years old and a young member of the Banneker Literary Institute, where the members stepped from the safety of their private Thursday night meetings and shared their beliefs on the public square. They proclaimed that “the signers of the Declaration were, to all intents and purposes, anti-slavery men.” Their speech aligned with John Brown’s own words and reflected common sentiments throughout Philadelphia’s black community. Fiery anti-slavery speeches could also be heard from pulpits of sympathetic churches in the city, were some fearful parishioners carried pistols to services as protection against possible attacks.
Sometime during this period before the Harpers Ferry Raid, John Brown called on Philadelphia abolitionists, like David Bustill Bowser, wealthy caterer Thomas Dorsey and William Still, for advice and support in his war against slavery and for black equality. All of these men were known to Catto either directly or through his friendships with their families and children.
With the Harpers Ferry Raid, deeper and widespread divisions occurred in the city of Philadelphia, as abolitionists, among them Lucretia Mott and James Miller McKim, provided aid and support to John Brown’s wife Mary, and black citizens draped their homes and businesses to honor “John Brown, the Martyr” after his capture. Ebenezer Bassett, Institute for Colored Youth principal and Catto mentor, was probably among the most ardent of Brown supporters in Catto’s immediate circle.
On the day of the hanging, “Martyr Day,” while two vigils, including a large one at Shiloh Baptist Church featuring the “Black Swan” (Elizabeth Greenfield), were held to memorialize Brown, “good (white) citizens” of Philadelphia began holding their own gatherings in support of the State of Virginia and the South. These divisions over John Brown were a harbinger of the coming Civil War and the way the city would be divided. For many abolitionists, including those who were heretofore non-violent, Brown put a marker in the ground. Increasingly, people began to believe that the nation could only be purged of slavery by war. Some Philadelphia anti-slavery activist, like Robert Purvis, called themselves “disunionists”

Charles Reason

A mathematician, linguist and educator, Reason became the first African American university professor at a predominately white college in America. In 1852, he left the post at New York Central College to become principal at the Institute for Colored Youth. Two years later, the young O.V. Catto came under his tutelage as a student. Reason instituted significant improvements at ICY and Catto was a beneficiary of these. Reason increased student enrollment, expanded the library holdings and exposed the students to outstanding African American intellectuals and leaders of that time. Reason was also known for his activities in the cause for black equal rights and worked with Henry Garnett in the Negro Convention Movement. A child prodigy with extraordinary gifts, he was also a prolific writer, who wrote political journalism as well as poetry.

Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett

Bassett came to Philadelphia in 1855 from Connecticut and took an appointment at the Institute of Colored Youth as principal, teacher and librarian. In this role, he built upon the education philosophy of Charles Reason and engaged his students with some of the leading thinkers of the day. He had a close association with John Brown and during the Civil War he was among the men with Catto and Frederick Douglass recruiting black soldiers for the USCT. When President Grant appointed him as minister to Haiti, Bassett became the highest ranking African American in public service. A historical marker is at his last residence in Philadelphia at 2121 North 29th Street.

William Whipper

Whipper believed in nonviolence and rational persuasion as a way to achieve social reform. He was a prominent member of Philadelphia’s African American community. In 1835, he became one of founding fathers of the Antislavery American Moral Reform Society. Whipper’s ideology regarding antislavery was very different than most people. He believed that prejudice against blacks came from the condition in which black people were in, not due to the color of their skin. A very successful businessman with his partner Stephen Smith, Whipper focused his efforts in helping black people to improve their status in society through education and economics. When the Freedman’s Bank established an operation in Philadelphia, Whipper managed the office. This bank was located at 919 Lombard Street in the heart of the 7th Ward has a historical marker. Octavius Catto was the 6th depositor at the Bank.

Frances Harper

A well-known equal rights activist, public speaker and writer, Harper is now known to be the most prolific writer of the 19th Century. She was one of the most prominent women during this period. Her writings appeared often as serials in African American publication like the Christian Recorder and the Anglo-African Magazine. An ally and friend of William Still, Harper aided his Underground Railroad efforts and also worked as an educator among the freedmen during Reconstruction. In 1866, she delivered a powerful speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention, along with Lucretia Mott. A historical marker is at her residence at 1006 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia.

Sarah Mapps Douglass

The granddaughter of Cyrus Bustill, a founder of the Free African Society in 1787 in Philadelphia, Sarah Mapps was an educator, writer, public lecturer, amateur artist, and abolitionist. As an artist, she often put painted images on her signed letters. Many examples of these survive today and are the earliest surviving examples of signed painting by an African American woman. At one time Sarah considered becoming a medical doctor and was the first African American women to attend the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. After a year, she changed directions and became a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth, where she was a colleague of Octavius Catto. Sarah believed that the cultivation of intellectual powers was the greatest human pursuit, along with fighting for equal rights. She was a founding member Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, along with her mother Grace. In 1855 she married William Douglass, the second rector of St Thomas African Episcopal Church and a widower with nine children. More of an intellectual than an activist, William Douglass led a congregation, whose members included not only the wealthiest black Philadelphia families, but also some of the most dominant figures in African American political life. Among these was O. V. Catto, who was a vestryman at the church, and Thomas Dorsey, an ally of John Brown.

Lucretia and James Mott
Lucretia (1793-1880) James (1788-1868)

Lucretia (1793- 1880) and James (1788 – 1868) Mott were a power couple. By the time of the Civil War, Lucretia and James Mott were elder statespersons in the abolition movement. Lucretia also became a leading voice for women’s suffrage, and she and James attended the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. Both were supporters of John Brown and cared for Mary Brown in their home in Philadelphia after John Brown was hanged at Harper’s Ferry. The training camp for black troops, Camp William Penn, was built on land owned by Union League member Edward M. Davis, the son-in-law of abolitionist Lucretia Mott. The land was adjacent to the Mott’s “roadside” estate. As the black regiments drilled, they sometimes marched and saluted Lucretia Mott as she watched from her porch. A historical marker honoring Lucretia stands on PA611 at Latham Parkway, North of Cheltenham Ave, Elkins Park.

Frederick Douglass

Arguably the most well-known 19th century anti-slavery and equal rights activist, Douglass spent considerable time in Philadelphia and was well connected in the African American community, as well as among white Republicans and the Union League. Douglass work with Philadelphians on black troop recruitment and his name appears on the “Men of Color of Philadelphia” recruitment poster. As a leader in the National Equal Rights League, Douglass worked with Catto to extend voting and citizenship rights to black men. Douglass was among the black leaders recognized by the Union League for their success in 1869. A Pennsylvania historical marker marks the secret meeting between Frederick Douglass and John Brown on West Washington Street, behind South Gate Mall, in Chambersburg, PA.

William D. Kelley

A founder of the Republican Party, Kelley gained national attention when he gave a speech against expanding slavery into the territories. He was considered to be a man of strict principles, who advocated for the recruitment of black troops in the Civil War and for extending the franchise to them afterwards. Kelley served on the Union League Committee supporting the raising of African American troops and establishment of Camp William Penn. Along with Thaddeus Stevens, Kelley use his political leverage to helped Catto end public transit segregation and achieve Pennsylvania’s ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments. Kelley also introduced a bill which gave voting rights to blacks in Washington, D.C. and supported the impeachment of Andrew Jackson. The William D. Kelley public school in North Philadelphia was named in his honor.

Charlotte Forten

The granddaughter of wealthy sailmaker, James Forten, and the niece of Harriet Forten Purvis, Charlotte grew up in a privileged black family in Philadelphia and New England. When her mother died in 1840, she was raised by various members of her extended family and in 1854 moved with one of her aunts to live in Salem, Massachusetts. It is there she attended a private school, where she was the only non-white student. In Salem, she became a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and became the first non-white person to teach white students in the public school. During the Civil War, Forten was the first black teacher to work with the mission establishing schools on the South Carolina Sea Islands and began teaching freedmen. Her essays of her experiences were published in Atlantic Magazine. A historical marker is at her last residence at 1608 R Street, NW, Washington, D.C, where she lived with her husband, Presbyterian minister Francis Grimke, who led Washington’s 15th Street Presbyterian Church. Rev. Grimke was active in the Niagara Movement and was a founder of the NAACP. Their home in Washington, D.C. was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Henry Highland Garnett

At O.V. Catto’s death, Henry Highland Garnett gave one of the most memorable eulogies to him at his New York City church, Shiloh Presbyterian Church. This event was covered in the New York Times. Garnett, who was a classmate of Charles Reason, the first Institute for Colored Youth principal to mentor Catto, also became one of Catto’s national activist associates, working together in the National Equal Rights League with Frederick Douglass. In the U.S. Capitol, painted on the ceiling, is a picture of Garnett with Horace Greeley, celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to black men.

Louis Wagner

Wagner was instrumental in the planning of the public funeral held to honor Octavius Catto. Catto’s body laid in state at the City Armory at Broad and Race Streets on October 16, 1871. Wagner and Catto had become friends as they both worked on the recruitment and training of black troops. It was he, who encouraged Catto to join the Pennsylvania National Guard. General Wagner, an abolitionist and ardent Republican, served as the commander of Camp William Penn. The General Louis Wagner public school in the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia was named to honor him.

Jeremiah Asher

Asher grew up as a third-generation free black, one of few blacks in North Branford, Connecticut to receive a formal education as a child. For nine years Asher pastored the Providence congregation. In time, he became well-known in black Baptist circles in the North, receiving invitations to pastor a number of black congregations. He finally accepted one of the calls, that of the Shiloh Baptist Church of Philadelphia. Asher became a prominent Baptist minister in the city of Philadelphia. On December 2,1859, 400 people gathered at his church to pray for John Brown at the time of Brown’s scheduled execution. During the Civil War, Asher joined the 6th Colored Infantry as chaplain, but did survive. Contracting typhoid fever in 1865 at the close of the war while ministering sick soldiers at the regimental hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, Asher died. A historical marker, honoring Asher, is in Yorktown, Virginia.

Daniel Payne

Born free in South Carolina, Daniel came North at an early age and was initially a school teacher in Philadelphia before he left his connection with the Methodist church and joined the African Methodist Episcopal church. In 1852, he was elected AME bishop and his tenure was called the most significant since that of Richard Allen’s, the church founder. It was Payne who purchased Wilberforce College in 1863 from white Methodists and made it the first black college in the US. Payne served as its president. Daniel is recognized for his work that not only improved the education of AME ministry, but also expanded the church membership, which by the end of Reconstruction had over 250,000 new adherents.

John Pierre Burr

A Philadelphia community leader, abolitionists, and an education and civil rights activist, Burr was among the African American gentlemen who signed the broadside to recruit United States Colored Troops in Philadelphia, along with Robert Purvis, William T. Catto and William’s son, Octavius. Burr was an organizer in the Underground Railroad, working in support of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He was among the people, who raised funds for the defense of the Christiana Resistance men, who were tried for treason for not obeying the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He is believed to be the son of Aaron Burr, born as product of Aaron Burr’s relationship with Mary Emmons, a household servant.

Martin Delany

Delany was as an abolitionist, journalist, writer and medical doctor. He was also among the earliest black nationalists and was one of the most vocal of voices during the Civil War era. He was a leading in recruiting African American men to join the USCT. He was given the rank of major for a field unit in the U.S. Army by Abraham Lincoln. Delany became the first black man to achieve such rank. A historical marker for Delany is at 5PPG Place, 3rd Avenue and Market, Pittsburgh.