Octavius Catto: Philadelphia’s “Forgotten Hero”

Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Feb. 4 would have been Rosa Parks’ 99th birthday. During African American History Month, we rightly celebrate her contributions to secure freedom for all Americans. Parks’ actions echo those of an earlier generation of Americans who fought for equal rights, including one remarkable Civil War-era Philadelphian: Octavius Catto.

Born in pre-Emancipation South Carolina, Catto moved North with his father (a former slave) and eventually became a renowned educator at the elite Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. During the Civil War, he raised 11 regiments of African American volunteers, rising to the rank of major in the U.S. Army. The troops were trained in Elkins Park on the outskirts of Philadelphia, which was well connected to the city by a network of streetcars. Unfortunately, the streetcars refused to carry African American passengers, so the soldiers’ families could not easily visit them.

Catto and his soon-to-be-wife, Caroline Le Count, campaigned aggressively for the desegregation of the transportation network by sitting on the streetcars and refusing to move. When one driver responded by steering his carriage off the tracks, Catto stayed in his seat and spent the night in the derailed car. The campaign was successful. In 1867, a lawsuit by Le Count forced the city to enforce a newly passed state law desegregating Philadelphia’s streetcars.

A true Renaissance man, Catto was also a manager and star shortstop of the highly regarded Pythian Base Ball Club. And he fought for equal rights on the ball field too. It was the Pythian’s unwelcomed petition to join the National Association, a precursor of the major leagues, that initiated the “gentleman’s agreement” erecting baseball’s color barrier—not overcome until Jackie Robinson in 1947.

Catto’s work in defense of freedom was validated by the ratification of the 15th Amendment in February 1871, which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. But the 1871 Philadelphia mayoral election—the first since the 15th Amendment’s passage—was marred by mob violence, as opponents tried to prevent African Americans from exercising their franchise. On his way back from the polls, Catto, who had spearheaded a get-out-the-vote drive for black voters, was shot in the back by a political opponent.

Catto’s funeral was the city’s largest to date. His assassination rallied his supporters in the Republican Party, which would dominate Philadelphia politics for the next 80 years, thanks in part to black support. Succeeding generations of African Americans named buildings and professional organizations after him. But by the middle of the 20th century, as the civil rights movement turned its attention to desegregating the South and ensuring housing equality in the North, Catto had become, as his graveside monument proclaims, a “Forgotten Hero.” As perhaps the only historical figure who has been compared to both George Steinbrenner and Rosa Parks, he’s worth remembering.

The first full-length biography of Catto, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, was published in 2010. It is available for purchase at the National Constitutional Center’s gift shop.

Christopher Munden is a Freelance Writer at the National Constitution Center. An avid fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, he first encountered Catto’s story in researching an article on the history of baseball in Philadelphia.