Philadelphia’s ‘Black Shining Prince’

Octavius Valentine Catto statue at Philadelphia City Hall (Shutterstock)

Securely tucked away in the Print Department of The Library Company of Philadelphia’s collection of over 100,000 photographs, maps, drawings, and ephemera is the makeshift book, Portrait Album of Well-Known 19th-Century African American Men of Philadelphia, 1865-1885. In this 8.5 x 6.5 inch album, composed of carefully cut-out cardboard, cabinet card, and gelatin silver, are photographs of twenty-one prominent Black men. This book, possibly produced around 1885 by a school or church without access to a printing press, has pages that vary slightly in size, are different colors, and are composed of cardboard from varying sources, including one yellow page that reads, “Sharpless Bros Dry Goods, Chestnut & Eighth Sts Philadelphia.” On the inside of the front cover is the unsteady penciling of a child who used the album to not only practice their arithmetic, but most importantly, also learn about men like Union Army veterans Harmon Richardson and Taylor Aldridge who were leaders in the Black community.

In the photographs of civil rights activists, musicians, and restaurateurs, nearly all the men are dressed in formal attire and some are staged in “Napoleonic poses.” Some images are large enough to occupy an entire page and others are small enough to fit inside a locket. A few photographs, like the graphic of barber Cheslea Bass and caterer Andrew F. Stevens, bear the watermark “Gihon,” the name of the famous Civil War photojournalist, John Lawrence Gihon. Nevertheless, as museum educator Bette Ann Davis Lawrence explained, albums like these were part of a tradition of “handing down” the history of the Free Black population in Philadelphia “visually through photographs and orally” with the accompaniment of storytelling. However, what the average Philadelphian doesn’t know is that this album is one of the earliest memorializations of Philadelphia’s once “forgotten” but now most honored local Black hero: Octavius Valentine Catto.

February 22, 2024, will mark the 185th birthday of activist Octavius V. Catto. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in Philadelphia, Catto was more than an educator at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in South Philadelphia during his short life.1He was a community activist who recruited Black men to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War, advocated for the desegregation of the streetcar system, and registered thousands of African Americans to vote following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. He was an athlete in the Philadelphia Pythians Baseball Club. Catto was also a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, the Banneker Institute, the Urban League, the Franklin Institute, and several other civic institutions. On Election Day, October 10, 1871, Catto was assassinated by Irish Democrat Frank Kelly near a polling place in South Philadelphia in the midst of white mob violence against Black voters. Following Catto’s death, he was immortalized as a martyr in countless newspapers for his social activism, including Harper’s Weekly. Nevertheless, among all the historic Black Philadelphians who have been respected and honored in this city, Catto remains the most recognized figure because he was a rare, All-American, radical civil rights hero in the eyes of thousands from the urban North.

Prior to the Great Migration (1916-1970), African Americans in Philadelphia were either educators, self-made caterers, ministers, “professionals, small business owners, and domestic servants” of wealthy white families, or service-industry laborers who worked as porters, maids, butlers, laundresses, cooks, and postal workers. As an educator and activist, Catto broke racist stereotypes and expectations for African Americans as a free, literate, outspoken community leader and orator. As Black Philadelphian and Howard University-educated journalist Ralph Jones explained, Catto helped organize the ICY for “training black boys and black girls for teachers” during an era when locally esteemed schools like the University of Pennsylvania largely ignored African American applicants except for a few wealthy blacks who came from respected families, like Sadie Tanner Mossell. Furthermore, Catto distinguished himself as a courageous Black elite who was relentless in his pursuit of racial equality for African Americans in education and civil rights. His dual career as an educator and activist made him an influential figure in a society that prioritized intellect and freedom.

Catto received his primary education from Vaux Primary School, Lombard Grammar School, and Allentown Academy, and his secondary education from the ICY, where he graduated in 1858. By September 1859, Catto convinced his former instructor, Principal Ebenezer Bassett to employ him as a teacher at the institution and he was hired. The ICY served approximately 100 young Black men and women daily who received academic instruction in “Mechanic Arts and Agriculture,” Trigonometrics, Geometry, Greek, Latin, and “higher English studies” from six Black teachers in four departments, with $80,000 in funding almost entirely from the Society of Friends. Students at the ICY received free textbooks and had access to a library, a public reading room, and over 2,000 volumes of varied literature that would prepare them to be teachers in public schools or further their education at colleges like Pennsylvania Medical University and the University of Edinburgh. After serving five years as a teacher at the ICY, Catto earned the honor of delivering the main address at the Twelfth Annual Commencement Ceremony. In Catto’s speech to the 1864 ICY graduates that included students Elizabeth Handy, Wesley Cromwell, Harriet C. Johnson, and Thomas Boling, he used the opportunity to assert that although he believed the Union Army would win the Civil War and over four million African Americans would be liberated from slavery, there must be “a system of education for the masses, irrespective of class or color.” The speech was later published as a book.

Catto also engaged in political activism. In 1865, Catto was one of the three secretaries at the State of Equal Rights Convention of the Colored People of Pennsylvania held in Harrisburg from February 8-10. Although Catto was primarily at the convention to record its proceedings, he also listened attentively enough to interject his thoughts on the importance of Black teachers in support of Jonathan Jasper Wright, a Wilkes-Barre educator of freedmen who later became the first African American admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar and served as judge on the South Carolina Supreme Court. Wright’s testimony initially failed to win the convention’s approval when he argued that based on “experimental knowledge,” Black children made “greater advancement” under the instruction of Black educators over white educators because Black teachers were “lovers” of academics and “the advancement of our race.” When Wright’s position seemed to be misunderstood by the attendees, Catto bolstered his colleague’s position and won the convention’s approval of Wright’s position: “In the appointment of teachers for these schools, colored persons, their literary qualifications being sufficient, should receive the preference, not by reason of their complection [sic], but because they are better qualified by conventional circumstances outside of the schoolhouse.” Catto’s words about black teachers potentially having the special skill to teach curriculum and life skills for survival in a white supremacist society outside the academy were so poignant at the 1865 Colored Convention that sixteen years later, Black readers of the Christian Recorder recalled the testimony in radical complaints about school segregation and the restrictions placed on Black teachers:

It constrains us more than ever to adhere to our motto of ‘Colored teachers for colored schools,’ and further that those white teachers take no real interest in their work nor of the scholars but teach and tolerate them only in order to enable them to draw the money they receive at the end of each month. Now, if white people of this country are so bitterly opposed to sending their children to school with the colored, why is it that they are so anxious to teach us? . . .It must be the dollars and cents they are after and not the moral interest of our children…We are tired of white overseers, we got enough of them during the days of slavery.2

In 1899, W.E.B. Du BoisThe Philadelphia Negro became the first scholarly text to explore Catto’s prolific life tied to the ICY. Du Bois also acknowledged how the Black community memorialized Catto in newspapers like the Philadelphia Tribune and renamed the Ohio Street School in South Philadelphia in his honor. Catto’s social impact had largely been obscured in mainstream historical narratives, however, by 1977, historian and principal of Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School, Harry C. Silcox reinvigorated scholarly and public interest in Catto with his article, “Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Black Militant: Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871).” In this article, Silcox not only gave an in-depth biography of Catto, but also explained how even though the activist is “one of the least mentioned figures in Pennsylvania’s struggle for human rights during the Reconstruction Era,” his militancy, charm, and appeal to thousands regardless of race and class status made him a local icon in the urban North. Although Catto remained absent from school textbooks, several scholarly articles and trade press books on Philadelphia’s history gradually began to include Catto in their narrative. By 1997, even people outside of the university knew about Catto and his legacy, including journalists and True Crime writers like Ron Avery who describes Catto, in anachronistic terms, as someone who could have been a “national figure” if he wasn’t tragically murdered: “a local Jesse Jackson/Colin Powell/Jackie Robinson rolled into one dynamic figure. He was young, handsome, highly-educated, articulate, bold, and a natural leader.”

Today, Catto has not only been memorialized in countless books and articles, but also in public monuments. In 2017 Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney unveiled a twelve foot, bronze statue of Catto near the Southbound entrance of City Hall, making it the city’s first public monument dedicated to an individual African American. A year later, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program completed a mural of Catto at the Universal Charter School in South Philadelphia with assistance from public school students and formerly incarcerated individuals from the Restorative Justice Guild. Overall, it truly has been an “uphill battle” in honoring Catto, a once forgotten, but much beloved son of Philadelphia.

  1. In 1837, the Society of Friends in Philadelphia established the African Institute in honor of white Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys who willed $10,000 to the group to create an academic institution for free Black people. Over time, the secondary school became known as the Institute for Colored Youth. White Quakers occupied the Board of Managers, while Black educators like Charles L. Reason, Ebenezer D. Bassett, Jacob C. White, Jr., Fanny M. Jackson Coppin, and Caroline LeCount ran the institution. In 1902, the school relocated to “George Cheyney’s Farm” in the Chester and Delaware Counties of Pennsylvania where it expanded into a college. Today, the institution is Cheyney University, the oldest Historically Black College in the country.
  2. Christian Recorder, November 9, 1882.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University.

Comments on “Philadelphia’s ‘Black Shining Prince’

  • Avatar

    Excellent and concise fact finding, very informative and interesting subject matter. Keep up the excellent work!

Comments are closed.