Ku-Klux in Philadelphia: Death of Octavius V. Catto

Octavius Valentine Catto (February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871) was a black educator, intellectual, and civil rights activist in Philadelphia. He became principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, where he had also been educated. Born free in Charleston, South Carolina, in a prominent mixed-race family, he moved north as a boy with his family. He became educated and served as a teacher. As a man, he also became known as a top cricket and baseball player in 19th-century Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Coverage of his murder appeared in the October 21, 1871 issue of The National Standard: A Women’s Suffrage and Temperance Journal

Ku-Klux in Philadelphia: Death of Octavius V. Catto

(The National Standard, October 21, 1871) The death of Octavius V. Catto, one of the victims of the disgraceful riot in Philadelphia on the 10th inst., (the day of the State election in Pennsylvania), is an illustration of the caste spirit not prevailing in our midst, as virulent, if not as potent, as the murderous hatred animating the Ku-Klux banditti of the South. In the city of the North, the classic birth-place of Independence, the city the home of so many philanthropies, and owning so many of the illustrious, the benevolent and loyal-hearted as her children, in open day, guiltless of any offence save that he was of a despised race, a colored man, there was assassinated a patriot, a scholar, a Christian gentleman, whose life, character, and rareness of ability would have adorned any race or time.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s Women’s Suffrage Collection. We can provide access to fully searchable newspapers by and for women including The Lily (1849-1856), National Citizen and Ballot Box (1878-1881), The Revolution (1868-1872), The New Citizen (1909-1912), The Western Woman Voter (1911-1913), The Woman’s Tribune (1883-1909) and the antisuffrage newspaper, The Remonstrance (1890-1913).

Professor Catto was the Principal of the Philadelphia High School for colored children, a man universally respected for his attainments and blamelessness of character.

Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871)

An early graduate of the Institute for Colored Youth, Catto, who lived here, was an educator, a Union army major, and a political organizer. In 1871 he was assassinated by street rioters while urging African-Americans to vote. His death was widely mourned locally.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 1991

During the war for the preservation of the Union, he served as a soldier with the thousands of his race whose patriotic daring and devotion to the flag, throughout that trying period, earned for them the commendations of their superiors, subduing far the time being, among their comrades, even the prejudice of centuries. An ardent lover of liberty, he counted as a sacrifice no service which could promote the welfare of humanity; and his unostentatious kindness to the poorer of his people, whose condition he earnestly sought to elevate, will long be gratefully remembered by many recipients of his benefactions. As a citizen, public-spirited and ever alert to promote the welfare of the many, no one was more highly esteemed.

His assassination, occurring while he was quietly returning to his home during the excitement of election day,—a ruffian firing upon him from the sidewalk, and oolly walking off among the crowd,—produced an intense feeling. All the better portion of Philadelphia was aroused. A meeting which was called at National! Hall to give expression to the indignation of the people, was one of the largest and most earnest convened in Philadelphia since the war-period. At this overflowing assemblage ROBERT PURVIS was one of the speakers. Equally impressive also were the funeral obsequies, which called forth one of the greatest demonstrations of the white and colored races ever witnessed in that city.

While the unjust spirit of Caste remains, whatever may be of statute enactment, the true equality of the colored people is far from being secured. In view of the assassination we have briefly referred to, and the illustrations of a similar proscriptive spirit daily occurring around us, let us afresh consecrate ourselves to the work for which earnest men and women, now passing off the stage of earthly existence, devoted their lives. In Philadelphia by that wanton assault, occurring in sight of hundreds, with the sworn officers of the law looking on, there perished as noble n nature as the world has seen added to its roll of martyrs. Yet in all our large cities—our own furnishing so striking an illustration—is the same feeling of race-hatred, ready at the first breath of passion to blaze forth in deeds of similar violence.

21st Century Memorial Campaign

On June 14, 2006, the Board of Trustees of the O. V. Catto Memorial announced the kickoff of a $1.5 million fundraising campaign to erect a memorial statue to Catto. The Abraham Lincoln Foundation made the first contribution of $25,000. On October 10, 2007, the 136th anniversary of Catto’s death, the Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund erected a headstone at Catto’s burial site at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

Catto Memorial Statue

Catto Memorial Statue

On July 26, 2011, to commemorate his life, the General Meade Society of Philadelphia participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at 6th and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first OV Catto award was presented that year.

To honor the man affectionately called the “19th century Martin Luther King”, Mayor Jim Kenney announced on June 10, 2016, that a new sculpture to commemorate Catto and other leaders would be erected outside Philadelphia City Hall.

The sculptural group, A Quest for Parity, including a twelve-foot bronze statue of Catto, was installed at Philadelphia’s City Hall on September 24, 2017, and dedicated on September 26, 2017. The sculptor is Branly Cadet. It is the first public monument in Philadelphia to honor a specific African American.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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