From The Ramparts
Junious Ricardo Stanton Octavius Valentine Catto Statue Unveiled
Most Philadelphians are completely unaware of the significance of Octavius Valentine Catto in the history of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the nation. Catto like so many people of African descent in the US was deliberately excluded from the history books and historiography of this city, state and nation.
Octavius Valentine Catto was born in Charleston South Carolina on February 22, 1839 to a free born Black mother Sarah Isabella Cain and William Catto an enslaved Black man who was a millwright by training. William Catto purchased his own freedom and due to his devotion as a Sunday School teacher was recruited to become one of the few Black ordained and licensed Presbyterian Ministers. He was originally groomed to be a missionary to Liberia, the US "colony" established in Africa by the American Colonization Society in 1821. (Do some research on the American Colonization Society, you will be surprised by what you find, who some of their most prominent members were and their plans goals for free people of African descent in the US.)
The elder Catto was sent to Baltimore in preparation for departure to Liberia but the discovery of a letter he wrote caused the Presbyterian leadership to rethink the motives and loyalty of Catto. He was forced to flee and take his family to Philadelphia were he reacquainted with several men he knew in Charleston. Catto became an itinerant preacher alternating between the Presbyterian and the AME Church serving as pastor for several churches in the Northeast US.
Reverend Catto sent his son Octavius to the best schools available that would admit blacks. Young Catto excelled in school and eventually made a name for himself as an honor student, orator, intellectual, educator, baseball player and activist.
During the US War Between the States, Catto advocated for Blacks being allowed to enlist. He and several of his friends travelled to Harrisburg determined to enlist in the Union Army but they were turned down after being encouraged to petition for enlistment by several white Philadelphians.
Undaunted Octavius worked to support the Union effort by raising over eleven regiments of "Colored Troops" to fight. It was Blacks like Catto, Frederick Douglas, Henry Highland Garnett and Martin R. Delany who used the war as an opportunity to press for freedom, equality and later enfranchisement.
In addition to raising troops Octavius took on additional challenges to the existing socio-political order. Octavius became the first president of the Institute For Colored Youth (the forerunner of Cheyney University) alumni association. He was a teacher and principal there. ICY graduates sent more of its graduates to teach the enslaved and newly freed Blacks during and after the war than any other organization or institution. Catto and his Black friends actually wrote and lobbied for passage of the legislation that eventually desegregated the street car lines in Pennsylvania.
Catto was an active member of the historic St Thomas African Episcopal Church founded by Absalom Jones in 1792 in Philadelphia the first African-American Episcopal church in the US. Like Catto many prominent Black Philadelphians were members of St Thomas which from its beginnings was a hub of social uplift, community activism and an ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad during slavery.
Catto also pressed for the right to vote. Black males were stripped of the right to vote in Pennsylvania in 1848 and regaining the ballot was one of the goals Catto and his socially conscious agitator/activist colleagues sought to achieve.
During a heated mayoral contest in 1871 Catto was murdered in cold blood in broad daylight by Frank Kelly one of many Irish ruffians and thugs who bedeviled and assaulted Blacks in Philadelphia. Assaults and mob riots against Blacks had been going on for decades. Kelly was apprehended but somehow escaped and fled the city. He was captured five years later, brought to trial in Philadelphia but acquitted of Catto's murder!
Most of Catto's exploits and accomplishments have been deliberately left out of history books. But now this travesty is being rectified. Recently there have been scholarly articles and books written about Catto and now a statue in his honor has been commissioned, sculpted, erected, unveiled and placed on the Southwest apron of Philadelphia's City Hall. This statue will be the first statue ever erected of an African American on municipal property!
On Sunday September 24th the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas held a special service honoring Octavius V. Catto, part of their two hundred twenty-fifth anniversary. One of the special guest speakers was Mayor James Kenney. The celebration at St Thomas marked the beginning of several days of activity to promote the unveiling of Catto's statue. The Mayor explained how and why he because fascinated about Octavius Catto and why he initiated the drive to recognize him with a permanent statue when Kenney was a councilman. It's been a long time coming, it took almost fifteen years to raise the funds and secure a sculptor to complete the project. Octavius Valentine Catto is finally getting his just due.