An American Tragedy: Octavius V. Catto
While the National Portrait Gallery was closed for renovation, we used the opportunity to reorganize the museum to reflect two of the main themes of American history: first the establishment and preservation of the Union through the Civil War, and second, the struggle to expand civil rights to all Americans. These themes led to a further conversation about who deserves to be included in the NPG as exemplary national figures. The only people who get in automatically are the presidents – good, bad or indifferent. Everyone else has to be assessed by our curators and historians. As our nation has democratized so has our collection. Instead of just having famous politicians and generals, we include people from all walks of life who made a mark on America.
One such figure is Octavius Catto, who, I would guess, is the least prominent, least well known person in our collection. His is a fascinating, tragic story--one that shows how difficult the struggle for civil rights has been in our country.
Catto was an African American teacher, civil rights activist, and organizer of one of America’s first baseball leagues. The son of a South Carolina slave who was manumitted, he became a Presbyterian minister, and moved north to Philadelphia. Octavius did everything a bright, ambitious young man with a social conscience should do in antebellum America. He obtained an excellent education at the Institute for Colored Youth, participated in the lyceum and public culture of the day, and returned to the school as professor of English and mathematics. He insisted on the necessity of schools and education for the African American community. He further sought to strengthen that community thruogh his love for cricket, and then baseball, by founding the Pythian Baseball club, which played against both black and, despite resistance, white teams.
During the Civil War, Catto, working with Frederick Douglass and others, helped raised money and troops for the Union cause. With the war won, emancipation achieved, Catto realized that the next battleground would be for civil and political rights. He helped desegregate the Philadelphia streetcars with an act of civil disobediance, and he fully immersed himself in the campaign to pass the great civil rights amendments, including the Fifteenth Amendment which guaranteed voting righs to African American men.
Although Philadelphia had a better reputation than some northern cities on the race question, racial discrimination was still endemic and sparked to life during the postwar election campaigns. The election of 1871 was especially heated, with Democratic operatives threatening and intimidating black voters both during the campaign and on election day. During a street encounter, Catto was shot to death by a white man named Frank Kelly. Kelly fled and was never convicted of the crime.
Catto’s funeral was one of the largest public ceremonies in Philadelphia history, as the city looked at itself and was ashamed: Catto had been an exemplary citizen and had been punished for being black. His death marked the beginning of a new era in American history as the problem of freedom for the slave became the question of achieving civil rights for African Americans. Catto was, as his epitaph put it, “One More Martyr in the Cause of Constitutional Liberty.”
Listen here and learn more about Octavius Catto, from NPG Historian David Ward (12:23)