Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Murder of Octavius Catto

Portrait of Octavious V. Catto

Octavius V. Catto fought for a variety of causes related to desegregating public services and preventing discrimination against African Americans in politics and sports. (Library of Congress)

A tumultuous, racially polarized Election Day in Philadelphia set the stage for the October 10, 1871, murder and martyrdom of Octavius V. Catto (b. 1839), an African American leader who struggled against segregation and discrimination in transportation, sports, politics, and society.

Election Day in 1871, just one year after the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restored voting rights for African Americans in Pennsylvania, was mired in the bloodshed of many. Fighting between angry white Democrats and African Americans, who aligned with the Republican Party, expanded into a riot in the predominantly African American neighborhood along eastern Lombard and South Streets. Police did little to intervene.

In the years prior to the election, Catto had worked to help the nation realize its founding democratic vision through actions to increase educational opportunities, desegregate trolley cars, increase voting opportunities for African Americans, and (as a notable local athlete) to integrate baseball. Fierce opposition to Catto’s activism and the general progress of African Americans contributed to his eventual murder.  At the time of the election, he was an instructor at the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University), at Sixth and Lombard Streets. In a twist of tragic irony, he beseeched Mayor Daniel Fox (1819-90) to consider providing greater protection to black voters. He and his colleagues decided to close the Institute early due to risks to staff and students.

Catto also was a major and inspector general of the 5th Brigade, 1st Division of the National Guard of Pennsylvania, a position that required him to have a horse, sword, and sidearm (pistol). On this Election Day, he went to the Philadelphia branch of the Freedmen’s Bank (a powerful symbol of black empowerment through cooperative economics) at 919 Lombard to withdraw twenty dollars to purchase a gun. On his way there, he encountered white attackers, whom he narrowly escaped. Shortly thereafter, Catto met with his friend Cyrus Miller and the two traveled to a pawnshop on Walnut Street where Catto purchased a six-shot revolver.

A drawing of a man pointing a gun at another man in the middle of a street.

This depiction of the murder of Octavius V. Catto was based on testimony provided by witnesses during Frank Kelly’s trial in 1877. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Around 3 p.m. the two friends parted and Catto started for home (814 South Street), where he had stored ammunition for his newly purchased firearm. Around 3:30 p.m., moments from his home, Catto passed two white men, Edward Reddy Denver and Frank Kelly. Seconds after crossing paths and without any words being exchanged, Kelley pulled a pistol and fired into Catto, who staggered backward as he clutched his bleeding wound. Catto attempted to flee to safety behind a streetcar to no avail. Kelly discharged his revolver at close range with no regard for the multitude of onlookers. Catto collapsed lifeless into the arms of an approaching police officer.

The funeral of Octavius Catto created a moment of mourning that provided a distinct departure from the violence and rioting that led to his demise. The service, held in the City Armory at Broad and Race Streets, was a national event with attendees from numerous states including Delaware, Washington, New York, and Mississippi. The funeral procession, beginning at 7 a.m. in the drizzling rain at Broad and Race Streets and ending at Lebanon Cemetery in Philadelphia (the remains were later brought to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, after Lebanon closed), included regimental guards, students, faculty and graduates from the Institute for Colored Youth, preachers, politicians, and more than 5,000 mourners. Catto was eulogized in pulpits throughout the country.

A color photograph of a black grave stone in the middle of a field. The stone has an engraving of a man at the top and a long epigraph covering most of the side facing the viewer. Some grass, leaves, and trees are visible.

Octavius V. Catto’s grave in Eden Cemetery had just a simple marker before the Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund installed this descriptive tribute to Catto’s legacy in 2007. (Photograph by Laura Blanchard / Wikimedia Commons)

For more than a century after his death, Octavius Catto has been remembered for his achievements and sacrifices. Schools, Masonic lodges, and university residence halls carry his name, and he has been inducted into the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame.  In 2007, the Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund erected a headstone at his gravesite in Collingdale with the inscription “The Forgotten Hero.” In 2010, Temple University Press published a new Catto biography, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.  In 2011, the City of Philadelphia contributed $500,000 toward a $2 million fund-raising campaign for a monument at City Hall to honor Catto, his life, and the work that ended in tragedy on Election Day 1871.

Aaron X. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the African American Studies Department at Temple University.  He holds a B.A. in Asian Studies, an M.A. in Liberal Arts, and an M.A. in African American Studies. He has publications accepted in The SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America on the subjects of “Running Away as Resistance to Slavery,” “Maleness, Masculinity and Manhood,” and “Black Classics Press.”


Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Biddle, Daniel R., and Murray Dubin. Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Casway, Jerrold. “Octavius Catto and the Pythians of Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Legacies, May 2007: 5-9.

Jesse, Russell, and Ronald Cohn.  Octavius Catto. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.

Silcox, Harry C. “Nineteenth Century Black Militant: Octavius Catto (1839-1871).” Pennsylvania History 44 no. 1 (January 1977): 52-76.

Trotter, Joe William, and Eric Ledell Smith, eds. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives.  University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Griffin, Henry H.. The Trial of Frank Kelly for the Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein & Co., 2009.

Clark, Vernon, “Philadelphia Announces Plans for Statue Honoring Octavius V. Catto.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 2011.

Obley, Patrick. “Blurring the Lines Extra: Octavius Catto’s Uncommon Valor.” Tribune News, July 1, 2007.

“Our Alma Mater: An Address Delivered at Concert Hall on the Occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth” (May 1864).

Clark, Vernon, “Philadelphia’s Black History in Bronze: Octavius Catto to Stand Tall.” Philadelphia Inquirer. January 31, 2014.

Washington, Lynn. “Octavius Catto.” Philadelphia Daily News, February 17, 1986.

Collections

Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection (Ephemera Digital Collection, Blockson Manuscripts, and Blockson Pamphlets), Temple University Libraries, 1330 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, Pa.

African Americana Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia. 

Places to Visit

Octavius V. Catto Historical Marker, 812 South Street, Philadelphia.

Octavius V. Catto gravesite, Eden Cemetery, 1434 Springfield Road, Collingdale, Pa.

African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

National Constitution Center, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

2 Comments Comments

  1. This young man loved and cared not only for African Americans, But for all man kind. It’s a shame that we cannot yet stand to love one another for whom we are and whom we can become. Love is the most powerful emotion in the world and yet, the most taken for granted. Often when love is lost and fleeing only than do most appreciate, yearn and respect it.

    Ella Carmellia Burns-Howell Posted July 1, 2016 at 9:02 am
  2. I did not see any reference to the fact that Catto was a vestryman at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas at the time of his assassination. The parish archives have information on his activities on the vestry (parish lay governing body). Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin did extensive research in the parish archives as part of the writing of Tasting Freedom.

    Arthur K. Sudler Posted February 7, 2017 at 1:45 pm

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  1. […] to either vote their way or not vote at all, and became enraged by the civil rights activism of Republican Octavious Catto, who worked to protect and strengthen African American voting activities.  Democratic terrorists […]

  2. By Philly Is Hillary’s Kind of Town on July 25, 2016 at 3:23 am

    […] enraged that blacks had won the right to vote, shot and killed the civil rights campaigner Octavius Catto, a black man who, historians note, had been on his way home to pick up ammunition for the newly […]

  3. […] enraged that blacks had won the right to vote, shot and killed the civil rights campaigner Octavius Catto, a black man who, historians note, had been on his way home to pick up ammunition for the newly […]

  4. […] enraged that blacks had won the right to vote, shot and killed the civil rights campaigner Octavius Catto, a black man who, historians note, had been on his way home to pick up ammunition for the newly […]

  5. […] Article and Picture Source here. […]

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