Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871)
Octavius Valentine Catto was born on February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina to the Presbyterian Reverend William T. Catto and Sarah Isabella Cain. Catto was born free, since his family was wealthy and prestigious. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1843 at the behest of the Presbyterian Church, and from his influential position as Reverend of the First African Presbyterian Church, O.V. Catto’s father, William T. Catto became an outspoken advocate for emancipation, education for African Americans and voting suffrage by 1848. He regularly met with famous abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Still. O.V. Catto carried on his father’s legacy of political advocacy and education throughout his life.
O.V. Catto was an exceptionally gifted student. His father enrolled Octavius in the (segregated) Vaux Primary School and the Lombard Street Grammar School when he was a young child. Following a period of education at the exclusively white Allentown Academy in New Jersey, he entered the Institute for Colored Youth. Catto graduated as the valedictorian of the Institute for Colored Youth’s class of 1858. During his time at ICY, he was already presenting noteworthy speeches and becoming recognized as a future community leader. Immediately after graduation in 1859, Catto was hired as a teacher at the Institute. At this early period in his career, he assisted the principal and prominent educator Ebenezer D. Bassett. Catto taught mathematics and English.
As a young adult, Catto became a corresponding secretary and influential member of the Banneker Institute. The Banneker Institute was an exclusive intellectual society for the city’s African American intellectual elite. In addition to scholarly subjects like mathematics and philosophy, members took part in debates on social justice topics such as emancipation, voting suffrage, equal wages, and Republican politics. In 1861, Catto was also named the permanent President of the Institute for Colored Youth’s Alumni council.
In mid-June 1863, fear of a Confederate invasion gripped the state of Pennsylvania. In response, Governor Andrew G. Curtin issued a proclamation urging volunteer enlistment in defense of the state and its capital at Harrisburg. In Philadelphia, Catto answered the call by helping to raise a company of 90 African American troops, whose ranks included ICY graduates Lumberd L. Nicken, Henry Boyer, Jr., Joseph S. White, Martin M. White, and William T. Jones. After parading to the West Philadelphia train station on the early morning of June 17, the volunteers proceeded to Harrisburg, PA via rail. In Harrisburg, the men were given weapons and mustered into the army, but Major General Darius N. Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna and tasked with the state’s defense, barred Catto’s company from participating as members of the emergency volunteer militia. Couch’s interpretation was that Congress only allowed blacks to serve a three year enlistment in the army, not a limited term. While thwarted from military service in this capacity due to this institutional racism, Catto returned to Philadelphia and enthusiastically supported black enlistment into the Union Army.
Throughout the Civil War, Catto directly assisted members of the United States Colored Troops who mustered out of the large nearby training facility, Camp William Penn. Catto served with the Pennsylvania National Guard and as a major and inspector for the fifth brigade of the United States Colored Troops, enlisted under Commander General Louis Wagner. However, according to current research, he never saw active combat. Catto notably presented a flag to the 24th USCT at a ceremony in 1865.
On May 10, 1864, Catto famously addressed the Institute for Colored Youth’s graduating class, summarizing the Institute’s founding and legacy, urging continued support for the school, and advocating for the cause of black education by black educators. During the crucial post-Emancipation Proclamation period of the Civil War, Catto argued that education would become the uniting force for the nation’s African Americans:
It is for the good of the Nation that every element of its population be wisely instructed in the advantages of a Republican Government, that every element of its people, mingled though they be, shall have a true and intelligent conception of the allegiance due to the established powers. Now this cannot be done in any other way than by properly educating the masses in the South; then these States will, indeed, be regenerated and the elements of their population be made ministering agents for the profit of the whole Nation and the lasting security of the Government.
Catto’s statements in “Our Alma Mater” also signified that his own political involvement was becoming increasingly influential. In November of 1864, Catto became corresponding secretary for Pennsylvania’s newly-formed State Equal Rights League, an organization that rallied for voting suffrage, political causes, street car desegregation and notably, advanced and equal education for African Americans students from African American teachers. Numerous members of the State Equal Rights League were teachers at the Institute for Colored Youth, who joined Catto in supporting educational justice initiatives.
In addition to political, educational, and social advocacy, Catto was also well-known for advancing the sport of baseball. In 1867, he became captain of the Pythian Base Ball Club, an exclusively African American team which he organized with his friend and fellow graduate Jacob C. White, Jr. The team was highly successful: by October of their first season they were declared “the best Colored team in the city and perhaps in the nation.” Catto also became engaged to 1863 ICY graduate, teacher, and principal of the Ohio Street School, Caroline R. LeCount in 1867.
By the late 1860s, Catto’s teaching career had become extremely successful. He was earning $800 a year as the highest paid teacher in the city of Philadelphia. In 1869, Catto was promoted to principal of the boys’ department of ICY. During this time he briefly took a leave of absence to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to consult with schools there, assist in development of curricula, and advocate for the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.
By October of 1871, Catto had resumed his teaching career at ICY. But his role as a political and social leader for the African American community led to widespread notoriety and suspicion from racist white factions. On Election Day, October 10, 1871, Catto was shot and killed by Frank Kelly, a member of an armed group of white voters intent on suppressing black votes. The Institute for Colored Youth was shut down in mourning for two weeks following Catto’s murder. Catto became a martyr to the cause of racial equality in Philadelphia for many years following his death. His friends, political allies, and ICY’s students worked tirelessly to further the ideals for which he advocated.
Harry C. Silcox, “Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Black Militant: Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871),” Pennsylvania History, 44.1 (Jan., 1977): 53-76; Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010). The Christian Recorder, “Notice” September 28, 1861; The Christian Recorder, “Banneker Institute of Philadelphia,” January 24, 1863; Octavius V. Catto, "Our Alma Mater: An Address Delivered at Concert Hall on the Occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth," May 10th, 1864. Published by Direction of the Alumni Association. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, Son and Co. Printers; The Christian Recorder, “Annual Report of Managers of the Institute for Colored Youth,” October 8, 1864; The Christian Recorder “Presentation of the Colors to the 24th U.S.C.T.,” April 22, 1865; The Christian Recorder, “Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League,” December 2, 1865; The Christian Recorder, “Bureau National Equal Rights League”, December 15, 1866; The Christian Recorder, “The Cars and Our People,” June 30, 1866.