Posted on 08/12/2008

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The Franklin Institute Inductee
Banneker Literary Institute
Institute for Colored Youth
October 10 1871
Martyr to the cause of Constitutional Liberty
Octavius V Catto
Vintage Portraiture
Battle of Gettysburg
African American
15th Amendment

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An American Tragedy: Octavius V. Catto

An American Tragedy: Octavius V. Catto
Octavius V. Catto was born in Charleston, South Carolina on February 22, 1839. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a descendant of one of Charleston's most distinguished mulatto families, the DeReefs. His father, William Catto, was an articulate and prominent Presbyterian minister who later became a leader in the black church and worked across its various denominations.

William Catto brought his family north when Octavius was about five and finally settled in Philadelphia by 1850. In Philadelphia, Catto was afforded an excellent education; his last school being the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became the historic black college, Cheney University.

Catto graduated from the Institute in 1858 as valedictorian and, not satisfied with his level of skill, trained further in classical languages under a distinguished black scholar in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to Philadelphia, he was appointed to the Institute's teaching staff as assistant to the principal, Professor Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, a highly regarded black scholar educated at Yale University and later ambassador to Haiti.

In many respects, Catto was a renaissance man... capable in many arenas, as well as a natural leader. However, as an African American, he continually hit the wall of racism. He strove to break that barrier:

All that he (the colored man) asks is, that there shall be no unmanly quibbles about intrusting to him any position of honor or profit for which his attainments may fit him. And that which is committed to him as a man, he will perform as no other than a man could perform.

His many intellectual pursuits included founding the Banneker Literary Institute and being inducted into The Franklin Institute, a scientific organization, which attracted inventors and scientist from around the world. His membership in this latter organization was met with rebuff by some. Catto also was an accomplished baseball shortstop and player-coach and was founder and captain of the Pythian Baseball Club.

Catto attempted to break down racial barriers in baseball, when a group of whites formed the Pennsylvania Convention of Baseball Clubs in 1868. His aggressive nature and strivings for equality in this instance greatly offended many immigrant whites who enjoyed baseball as their pastime.

His boldest and greatest accomplishments, however, were in the political arena, as a staunch supporter of the Union cause and the Lincoln Administration. Catto worked in the inner circles of the Republican Party to gain civil liberties for blacks and in support of the war effort.

When the Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in 1863, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, Catto responded to the Call for Emergency Troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies. The company was officered by whites and comprised of black men. Catto continued to seek ways of raising black troops to fight for black emancipation. He joined with other leading blacks of his time, including Frederick Douglass, to raise troops under the U.S. War Department authority granted by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Catto also led efforts to gain equal access to public transportation using passive resistance and political influence. His war experience solidified his ardor for the Republican Party, which he saw as the only hope for black Americans to obtain equal rights. Catto joined the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, begun by Republicans to help blacks gain the right to vote. In 1864, he and other black leaders from all over the country met at the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York and established the National Equal Rights League (NERL) with Frederick Douglas as president. The NERL focused on removing racial barriers in Union states.
The Incident

With the passage of the 15th Amendment, Catto's life took another turn. Catto pledged that black men would vote republican and worked tirelessly to get Pennsylvania to ratify the 15th Amendment. This was accomplished in October 1870.

The elections that followed became alarming to most whites, as it became apparent that blacks, enfranchised by the Amendment, would vote in large numbers. In Catto's own political ward, it was likely that blacks could change the balance between Democrats and Republicans in local offices.

On Election Day, October 10, 1871, violence and murder had started early and continued throughout the day, as gangs of white thugs roamed the black community, seeking to discourage residents from voting. Local police, many of whom were Irish immigrants and supporters of the Democrats, fueled the situation by not providing protection for black residents.

As he nearly reached his doorsteps, Catto was confronted by Frank Kelly, a Democratic Party operative and associate of the Party's boss, who recognized Catto as he walked down the street. Kelly fired several shots at Catto with one bullet piercing his heart.

Catto was pronounced dead at a local police station, where his body had been carried. His murder produced both a public outcry and revealed the paradox of justice in a community still steeped with racism.

A backlash against the violence turned out a large majority for the Republican ticket. However, Frank Kelly was never convicted of Octavius Catto's murder.

Kelly escaped Philadelphia after the shooting, most likely with the help of Democratic friends. He was found six years later in Chicago and extradited to Philadelphia for trial.

At the trial on April 23, 1877, six prosecution eyewitnesses, three whites and three blacks, identified Kelly as the shooter. Several of these witnesses had known Kelly prior to the shooting, so for them the identification was without question.

A key defense witness for Kelly was an ex-police sergeant, John Duffy, who himself had been tried for the murder of Levi Bolden, another casualty of the 1871 election riot. A jury of twelve mostly working class men, none African American, acquitted Kelly after the close of the 10-day trial.

Catto’s funeral was one of the largest public ceremonies in Philadelphia history, as the city looked at itself and was ashamed: Catto had been an exemplary citizen and had been punished for being black. His death marked the beginning of a new era in American history as the problem of freedom for the slave became the question of achieving civil rights for African Americans. Catto was, as his epitaph put it, “One More Martyr in the Cause of Constitutional Liberty.”

V. Chapman Smith