Updated: Sunday, September 24, 2017, 3:01 AM
As Philadelphia gears up to honor the legendary — but virtually unheard of — Octavius V. Catto, with the unveiling and dedication of a seven-piece memorial ensemble to the slain African American civil rights leader from the mid-1800s — we must pause in recognition of the magnitude of this moment finally taking place some 150 years after Catto’s murder on South Street as he urged other African Americans to vote.
Philadelphians love local hero stories. They are particularly fond of baseball stories as well. The Catto story has elements of both. However, sometimes we focus so much on the local, or even baseball, we miss the greater significance of a person. (Ken Burns definitely showed us that with Jackie Robinson.) This should be the case with Octavius Valentine Catto.
As a transplant to Philadelphia more than 40 years ago, I came to my new hometown looking for Catto. I heard many stories about him growing up in Washington, and I came here looking for a memorial to Catto, but found none. Along the way, I started meeting people who had Catto stories, but they were few in number. Most were folks whose families had Philly connections before 1930. Even these people had only the “local” hero story, which included baseball, and they would look puzzled when I told them that Catto should be seen as a national figure.
I was thrilled when then-Councilman Jim Kenney included me as part of the gathering he pulled together to erect a monument to Catto, and even more thrilled to work with a group of cultural and civic partners who are spearheading education efforts around Catto.
So, what do we know? Why does Catto education matter? What can this monument stand for to Philadelphians and to our nation?
Yes, this monument will be the first on Philadelphia public land dedicated to an African American. But more than being about the race of a single man, this monument should stand as a symbol of “America’s Second Revolution” and the bold changes African Americans contributed in this revolution.
Catto’s life spanned the pivotal years in our nation’s history that were an important shift in the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Historian Eric Foner calls this time America’s Second Revolution. This shift was not just in the ways blacks would be defined by federal and state laws, claim their citizenship rights, and seek opportunity. It was a fundamental shift in defining the meaning of citizenship and equality for everyone. These are issues we are still grappling with today.
Catto was among the leaders who made this shift happen. He was our local person working on streetcar desegregation, which led to Pennsylvania’s ending of segregation on public transit. He was a young educator who expanded education opportunities for African Americans not just here in Pennsylvania, but also in Washington, resulting in outstanding education institutions. He was an activist for civil rights laws and the ratification of new constitutional amendments. Catto was on the front lines with Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and John Mercer Langston in the National Equal Rights League, extending citizenship rights and privileges to African Americans, including male voting rights, public accommodation, and military service. And yes, he pushed to integrate early sports, especially Base Ball (not baseball), and showed that African Americans have the same skills and abilities as whites.
O.V. Catto is our standard bearer in America’s Second Revolution. The world he helped to create with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, in particular, produced a new vision and meaning of America. The 14th Amendment gave us “equal citizen.” The 15th Amendment gave us voting rights that “shall not be denied or abridged.” These amendments solidified Congress’ intent in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which Catto and his associates in the Equal Rights League pushed hard for. The amendments also changed the nature and role of the federal government in providing protections to citizens. And “Congress shall have the power to protect the basic rights,” which was different from prior amendments that gave rights to the states. U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner called these amendments the “sleeping giants” of our Constitution.
A famous Metcalf and Clark lithograph at the Library of Congress — depicting a parade that took place in Baltimore upon the passage of the 15th Amendment, with further illustrations showing “the rise and progress of the African race in America” — reflected the changes that took place.
But those changes were short-lived. Within six years after Catto’s death, the federal government began to back away from providing the protections, enabling the rise of Jim Crow and other outward expressions of racial animosity throughout the United States. However, the amendments and the values they represented remained a part of our Constitution and became the legal basis of the efforts in the modern civil rights movement.
Today, let us teach our children that Catto was a leader who gave the nation a great gift, “the rebirth of the new nation” that Abraham Lincoln spoke about. Students should learn that Philadelphia not only gave birth to the nation in 1776, but also was a central place in its rebirth and laid the foundation for the work of others, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For us adults, the Catto memorial can enable all to engage in much-needed civics conversations on race, citizenship, equity, and the opportunity gap in our democracy and what these mean to our neighborhoods and our city.