Amy Cohen's Catto the Forgotten Hero

Philadelphia is a city closely associated with history. Many people, however, seem to think that Philadelphia's historical significance begins and ends with the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin, and all of the familiar "Birthplace of the Nation" stuff. But our city's history is so much richer than what occurred during one crucial era in our nation's past. You are about to read the biography of a true American hero...

1849 Map of Charleston
1849 Map of Charleston Octavius V. Catto was born on February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina. Although Octavius was once a name given to an eighth child (can you figure out why?), Octavius V. Catto was only the third child born to William T. Catto and Sarah Isabella Cain. (Think about the date he was born — can you figure out what the V. stood for?) Neither of Octavius's parents were ever enslaved. His mother was born free into a prominent mixed-race family....

Octavius Catto's family had grand plans to move to Liberia in Africa, but through a series of events, landed instead in Philadelphia. A letter written by William Catto to an associate in Columbia, South Carolina was intercepted by authorities who thought the contents of the letter could provoke a slave insurrection. Not only was William's missionary license revoked, but officers were sent to Baltimore to arrest him and bring him back to South Carolina. Fortunately, William was alerted and in April of 1848, the family managed to cross the Mason-Dixon line (separating...

At the age of 15, Octavius Catto became a student at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), a Quaker-funded trade school for black students that had transitioned into a teacher training academy just two years before he enrolled. During the time Catto was a pupil, the ICY was located at 716-718 Lombard Street, in the heart of Philadelphia's black community. To be admitted into the school, students like Octavius had to pass exams in "Reading, Writing, Spelling, Arithmetic as far as Fractions and in the Geography of the United States." Additionally, applicants...

A full-time teacher by the age of 19, Octavius Catto seems to have been a young man in a hurry — eager to prove himself as a leader of his community. So eager was Octavius that he tried to join the Banneker Society (an intellectual and political men's club founded by William Catto and others), before he had even finished high school. Though this initial application was rejected, once Octavius had returned to Philadelphia and become a teacher, he was accepted as a Banneker in 1859 and quickly became a club...

In spite of the bravery displayed by black troops during the Civil War, their service did not result in equal treatment. Indeed, even black soldiers in uniform were banned from riding the streetcars that traversed Philadelphia in the mid- 1800s. The mass transit system of Philadelphia, a network of privately owned streetcars, prohibited black riders (other than servants accompanying white employers), though some allowed blacks to pay a fare for the "privilege" of standing on the narrow, mud-splattered platform at the front of the horse-drawn trolleys. Before blacks began fighting for the Union...

In 1860s Philadelphia, Octavius Valentine Catto was a minister's son, a scholar, a teacher, an activist, an orator, and an emerging community leader, but he also knew how to have fun. He enjoyed summer trips to Cape May (one of the few Jersey shore communities that welcomed blacks), and he loved baseball. Various forms of the modern day game of baseball had long been played in Philadelphia and other cities. Games like town ball, bass ball, goal ball, and base ball were popular pastimes with boys and with gentlemen who were able...

This ballot box was used in the northeastern U.S. circa 1870 and is now on display at the Smithsonian. Octavius Catto was a leader of Philadelphia's African American community who had fought for the right for to serve in the Union Army, access to Philadelphia streetcars, and admission to the National Association of Base Ball: None of these battles was as important to him as his final campaign: the struggle for voting rights. Catto and his associates knew the power of the ballot box could potentially make all other...

By 1871, Philadelphia community leader Octavius Catto had become the Head of the Boys' Department at the Institute for Colored Youth. This was following the departure of the fabulously named principal, Ebenezer Don Carlos Basset, who had been appointed ambassador to Haiti by President Ulysses Grant in a bid to shore up black support for the Republican Party. Catto had also become a major in the Fifth Brigade, an all-black division of the National Guard. As such, he led a march to Fairmount Park for the dedication of a memorial to President...

There is only one known photo of Octavius V. Catto: a portrait taken in in the Philadelphia studio of photographer Gallo Cheston that Catto intended to use as a carte de visite*. This 1870 or 1871 photograph was the basis of the engraving used in Catto's obituary in Harper's Weekly. The photo of Catto and its nearly identical engraving are by far the most widely used images of Catto-from websites, to book jackets, to Catto's tombstone in Eden Cemetery. I was thus struck by a colorized version of this photograph shared with...

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