Octavius V. Catto was a Prominent Black American leader, activist, scholar, athlete, educator, and military officer in the National Guard.
Catto was born free in Charleston, South Carolina on February 22, 1839, to parents William T. Catto and Sarah Isabella Cain. Catto mother was a free woman and member of the city’s prominent mixed-race DeReef family. His father was a slave in Millwright, South Carolina, who gained his freedom and became a prominent Presbyterian Minister. When Elder Catto was ordained he moved his family out of the South and to the North. First to Baltimore then to Philadelphia where they settled and William soon became the pastor at the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Catto began his education at Vaux Primary School and then Lombard Grammar School, both were segregated institutions at that time. The Catto family moved to New Jersey, and in 1853, at the age fourteen-years-old, a young Catto enrolled in the all-white Allentown Academy in Allentown, New Jersey. The following year the Catto family moved back to Philadelphia, and Catto enrolled at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). There in ICY, Catto took up in Curriculum such as Classical study, Latin, Greek, geometry, and trigonometry. In 1858, at the age nineteen Catto graduated with honors and as valedictorian. Catto moved to Washington D.C. to further his education.
In 1859, Catto returned to Philadelphia and accepted an teaching position at ICY. He was an instructor of literature, mathematics, Greek, and Latin at ICY.
When the Confederate Army 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 5th Brigade of the Pennsylvania National Guard. He served as major and inspector general in the brigade. Catto helped raise eleven regiments of “Colored Troops” in Pennsylvania who were then trained at Camp William Penn before being sent to the warfront.
Even while in uniform, Catto founded the Banneker Literary Institute and the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League in October 1864. He was a member of several other civic, literary, patriotic, and political groups, including the Philadelphia Library Company, 4th Ward Black Political Club, and the Franklin Institute. After the Civil War, Catto started a Philadelphia protest movement that led to passage of the 1867 Pennsylvania law that prohibited racially segregated public transportation.
Catto was active not just in the public arenas of education and equal rights, but also on the sporting field. Like many other young men of Philadelphia, both white and black, Catto began playing cricket while in school, as it was a British tradition. Later he took up the American sport of baseball. Following the Civil War, he helped establish Philadelphia as a major hub of what became Negro league baseball. Along with Jacob C. White, Jr. he ran the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia. The Pythian’s had an undefeated season in 1867. Following the 1867 season, Catto, with support by players from the white Athletic Base Ball Club, applied for the Pythian’s’ admission into the newly formed Pennsylvania Base Ball Association. As it became clear that they would lose any vote by the Association, they withdrew their application. In 1869 the Pythian’s challenged various white baseball teams in Philadelphia to games. The Olympic Ball Club accepted the challenge. The first match game between black and white baseball teams took place on September 4, 1869, ending in the Pythian’s’ defeat, 44 to 23.
On Election Day, October 10, 1871, Catto was teaching in Philadelphia. Fights broke out in the city between black and white voters, as the elections were high in tension and parties reflected racial opposition. Black voters, who were mostly Republican, faced intimidation and violence from white voters, especially ethnic Irish, who were partisans of the city’s Democratic Machine. Irish immigrants had entered the city in great numbers during and after the Great Famine of the 1840s; they competed with free blacks for jobs and housing. City police were called on to stop the violence. Instead, the officers joined the Irish by using their power to prevent black citizens from voting. A Lieutenant Haggerty was later arrested for having encouraged police under his command to keep African Americans from voting.
On his way to vote, Catto was intermittently harassed by whites. Police reports indicate that he had purchased a revolver for protection. At the intersection of Ninth and South streets, Catto was accosted by Frank Kelly, an ethnic Irish man, who fired several shots at Catto, with one bullet piercing his heart. Catto later died of his wounds. The city inquest were unable to determine if Catto had pulled his own gun. Kelly escaped Philadelphia after the shooting but was found six years later in Chicago, Illinois and extradited to Philadelphia for trial. At trial on April 23, 1877, six prosecution eyewitnesses—three whites and three blacks—identified Kelly as the shooter. Despite their testimony, an all-white jury acquitted Kelly.
Catto never married. He was engaged to Sarah LeCount but was killed before the wedding could take place. Catto’s military funeral was at Lebanon Cemetery in Philadelphia, and was attended by more than five thousand people. Later, after the cemetery was closed down, Catto’s remains were reinterred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Thirty-five years later in 1906, the O.V. Catto Lodge (associated with Masonry) was formed in Philadelphia in his honor.