Octavius V. Catto was a prominent civil rights activist and educator in Philadelphia who tragically lost his life on Election Day in 1871 while exercising his right to vote. Catto, like many Blacks at the time, was a supporter of the Republican Party and met the violent opposition of Irish immigrants who supported the Democratic Party.
Catto was born February 22, 1839 to a free mother and a former slave father in Charleston, S.C. His father became a well-known Presbyterian minister, moving his family north to give them greater opportunity. Catto was educated at the Institute for Colored Youth, which is now known as Cheyney University. After studying in Washington, D.C., Catto returned home and taught at ICY.
During a Confederate Army invasion in 1863, Catto organized and helped train volunteer troops to head off enemy forces. During this period, Catto founded the Banneker Literary Institute and the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. He also worked alongside activists such as Frederick Douglass and others, and was a supporter of getting a 1867 state law passed that ended the racial segregation of public transportation.
On October 10, 1871, Catto was teaching in the city as widespread skirmishes were occurring between White Irish immigrants and Blacks. During the Reconstruction Era, many Blacks supported the Republican agenda and enjoyed perceived perks because of their loyalty to the party. Pennsylvania ratified the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that year.
Irish immigrants felt slighted in some fashion and threw their partisan support behind the Democratic agenda by enacting a terror campaign against Black residents. It was rumored that Catto knew of the risk he faced by going to the polls and was thus armed, yet Irishman Frank Kelly still took it upon himself to gun down the teacher and activist in cold blood.
Kelly escaped but was found six years later in Chicago. He faced trial and despite white and Black eyewitnesses pegging him as Catto’s killer, an all-white jury acquitted him of the crime.
Catto was a beloved figure and his funeral was attended by thousands. In 1906, the never married Catto had Philadelphia’s O.V. Lounge named after him. In 2007, the Octavius Catto Memorial Fund erected a headstone at his gravesite in Collingdale, Pa.