Octavius Catto: A forgotten legacy

The name Octavius Catto elicits puzzled stares from some, blank looks from others.

An old Roman general? The designer of the new “it” pair of jeans? A(nother) small-plates restaurant in Center City?

Very few would know that Octavius Catto was, in his day, as known for his civil rights activism as was Frederick Douglass. Or that he spearheaded the movement in Philly to get the Union army to accept black soldiers. Or that he and a friend started the city’s second black baseball team – and the first all-black team to face an all-white team on the diamond. Or that he led the charge against segregated trolleycars – a precursor to the Montgomery Boycott. Or that he was gunned down while on his way to vote – black suffrage being another cause he championed – and his funeral was the largest public funeral in the city since that of Abraham Lincoln.

In this city where Catto lived and died, very few reminders of his legacy remain: a plaque near the South Street address where he lived. Across the river in Camden, there is an elementary school named for him – though even there, little is known about his life.

“Staff and students are not too familiar with Catto, outside of attending a school named after him,” said Byron Dixon, principal of Octavius Catto Community School.

Dixon said, however, that he looks forward to educating the school community about him in the near future and plans a program to introduce Catto and his accomplishments after winter break.

Recently, authors Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin attempted to shed light on this forgotten figure in their book “Tasting Freedom.” Listen to selections from their interview with Marty Moss-Coane on Radio Times.

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