War was on the horizon in Pennsylvania in June 1863. After a stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee finally had found the opportune moment to put the Union army on the defensive.
In Philadelphia, and across the state, a call to arms was sounded. Volunteers for the militia were needed as gray legions marched toward the fields of southern Pennsylvania and an eventual fateful turn to Gettysburg.
“MEN OF COLOR. To Arms! Arms! NOW OR NEVER” read a large banner posted in downtown Philadelphia.
Fifty-five individuals placed their names at the bottom, among them O.V. Catto.
Just 24, Octavius Valentine Catto was a graduate and instructor at the Institute for Colored Youth. He had founded the Banneker Literacy Institute and was inducted into the Franklin Institute, a scientific organization. His many accomplishments included a stint as a professional baseball player.
The intellectual turned his attention to politics and public service. Catto, born in South Carolina to a Presbyterian minister, was determined to wage war on discrimination.
During that summer of 1863, Catto helped form a company of nearly 100 African-Americans.
“Answering the urgent call for volunteers as announced by the governor, they reported to the city arsenal for duty,” according to Andy Waskie, a Temple University professor who has written and lectured on Catto’s life and legacy. “They were uniformed and equipped and sent by train to Harrisburg to join the army. But the authorities there under General Couch ingloriously rejected the unit with the excuse that black troops were not authorized.”
Catto returned to Philadelphia and spent the next two years raising 11 African-American regiments for the Union cause. The units were organized at Camp William Penn, trained, equipped and sent to the front.
In 1864, Catto helped organize the Equal Rights League.
African-Americans at that time were not guaranteed the vote, and they did not have full access to the city’s street cars. Catto would devote the last few of his 32 short years to remedying those problems.
In 1870, an approved state amendment provided for African-American men to vote. Catto, a Republican supporter, actively campaigned for equality at the polls.
On Oct. 10, 1871, “voting transpired with acts of violence and intimidation,” Waskie told the Picket. “The police were in support of this. They were pushing black men out of line.”
An unarmed Catto was shot to death that tumultuous day, as he tried to stop the violence. Six years later, Frank Kelly, a white Democratic Party operative, was acquitted of the murder.
Catto became a martyr to the cause of equality -- only to slip into relative obscurity. A marker on his grave reads, “Forgotten Hero.”
Catto’s life story is finally drawing more recognition. The city is helping fund a statue in his honor and two ceremonies this weekend will recognize his sacrifice and service to the community. • (Related Picket article)
“Octavius Catto was not exceptional,” his great-great-nephew, Leonard Smith, told the Picket this week. “There were thousands of Octavius Cattos.”
Still, Smith feels pride in what his ancestor accomplished.
Smith, 68, said he principally learned from his grandmother about Catto and Catto’s father, William, whom Smith finds to be even more admirable.
“Civil rights has been a struggle in this country since the first landing and the first slave,” said Smith, a Williamsburg, Va., resident. “It did not start in the 1960s.”
The retired hospital administrator has done extensive research on his family, including those who helped in the Underground Railroad. Smith spoke with the authors of 2010’s "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.”
Service, Smith said, runs deep in his family.
“There is pride and a feeling you must have education and help others,” Smith told the Picket. “There are certain things that are ingrained.”
Storyteller Bob Branch, 58, is a historical re-enactor in Philadelphia who portrays Catto around town.
Two summers ago, he began working for Historic Philadelphia, an organization that interprets history and makes it relevant at several venues in the city.
“In school, the overwhelming (percentage of) black and white Philadelphians never heard of who he was,” said Branch, who grew up there.
“Each presentation I tailor to the audience. I will go the first person and dress as he would dress. I will intersperse direct quotes from Catto,” said Branch, who also makes appearances for other Philadelphia groups and churches.
Branch, an engineer, said he has a personal identification for the struggle for equality. His father, he said, was not allowed to play baseball for his school. Branch’s physics teacher in high school singled him out for “wasting time.” And a college professor did not think he was cut out for his eventual profession.
“I was free, but I wasn’t equal,” said Branch.
Younger people, especially, want to know why Catto was murdered.
“The question is, ‘How come we haven’t heard of him before?’ My answer is that history is quite often selective,” said Branch.
Despite gains made during and since Catto’s time, Branch said he remains concerned about equal access to education. And Smith cited economic inequities.
Saturday, Catto will be remembered in an annual wreath-laying ceremony and at the Union League, where the Pennsylvania National Guard will reissue a medal in his honor, to two Guard members who have exemplified remarkable public service.
Murray Dubin, co-author of “Tasting Freedom,” said Catto and others helped lead America’s first civil rights movement.
"I'd love to tell you that Martin Luther King knew about Catto and that's why he did what he did, but I can't prove that," Dubin told NPR in 2010. But it was the shoulders of Catto and dozens of other men and women "that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy ... stood on top of."
Photo of Robert Branch as Octavius Catto, J. Holder for Historic Philadelphia, Inc. Wreath photo courtesy of Gen. George Meade Society