Annette John-Hall: Story of Philadelphia activist resonates today

Octavius Catto was among those who risked their lives seeking a taste of freedom. He was killed at 32.
Octavius Catto was among those who risked their lives seeking a taste of freedom. He was killed at 32.
Posted: February 25, 2011

I never intended to write about Octavius Catto for Black History Month.

If you read this column, you know that the last thing I do is pigeonhole worthy stories of African Americans into an obligatory theme or a designated month. To me, African American history is American history, and I treat it as such, all year long.

That said, three months late, I finally cracked open Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, a masterful overview of Philadelphia's original civil rights movement, written by present and former colleagues Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. I'm glad I waited.

Because if ever there was a time to see how Catto's quest for liberty in the 19th century melds with the mass protests for liberty that followed, it is now.

An accomplished life

It is astounding when you consider what Octavius Catto - equal-rights activist, teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth (the building still stands at Ninth and Bainbridge), outstanding second baseman for Philadelphia's finest black baseball team, the Pythians - was able to accomplish during his short life.

On Feb. 22, 1839, Catto was born free - in name only. In 19th-century Philadelphia, African Americans could not tap fully into the American Dream. They could not enjoy basic freedoms such as riding streetcars or participating in patriotic celebrations, let alone vote. They couldn't even play that popular new sport known as base ball.

As a twentysomething, Catto, along with a group of young, fearless compatriots you've probably never heard of - unsung heroes such as Caroline Le Count, Henry Highland Garnet, Frances Jackson Coppin, and Martin R. Delany - risked their lives by organizing and protesting for a taste of the freedom that was supposed to be an inalienable right in the United States.

"They defied white mobs and police, and, like the marchers of Selma and Birmingham, came away with their heads bloodied and their churches burned," Biddle told a captivated audience at PNC's Black History Luncheon last week. "But yet, their generation of civil rights activists came back for more."

And so, nearly a century before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., a group of 36 graduates from Lincoln University refused to go to the back of a horse-drawn streetcar, demanding enforcement of a newly passed law that integrated public transit.

Their tactic of civil disobedience set the course for history: Defy the rule. Tell the newspapers. Speak at meetings. Go to court. A template that would be passed down from generation to generation.

Like today's uprisings

"What Octavius Catto did is analogous to what we see on the world stage today," says Marsha Jones, PNC's chief diversity officer, who helped come up with the idea to celebrate Catto during Black History Month.

From the protests of the 19th century to the civil rights movement of the 20th century, from the antiwar protests of the 1960s to the uprisings in the Middle East and the Midwest today, "there is a bringing to life of the democracy that we, as baby boomers, participated in, and it's an active participation," Jones says.

I don't have to tell you what's happening in the Middle East, with Moammar Gadhafi continuing to lose control of Libya as hundreds of thousands of citizens risk the ultimate sacrifice in the name of democracy.

And in Wisconsin, protesters have come togther en masse to denounce attempts to derail their American Dream. It's not just the demonized teachers or the nurses and garbage collectors who would fall under Gov. Scott Walker's wrecking ball; police officers and firefighters have joined the fight, too.

Like them, Catto and his forces - fellow blacks, along with plenty of white sympathizers - knew when they were being oppressed.

Sadly, Catto didn't live to see his dream of equality come to fruition. Not even close.

Biddle and Dubin write that on the night before Election Day 1871, black voters had been systematically attacked by whites, which prompted Catto to let his students out early the next day. On his way home, as he walked down South Street, a young white man, wearing a bandage around his head and carrying a violent agenda in his heart, took aim and fired.

Octavius Catto was 32.

How many of us still carry the torch?

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