The Life & Legacy of Octavius V. Catto

Octavius Valentine Catto was born on February 22, 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina to Sarah Isabella Cain and the Reverend William T. Catto, a Presbyterian Minister.

The Cattos moved to Philadelphia in 1844 and in 1854, the young Octavius enrolled in the newly founded Institute for Colored Youth (later renamed Cheyney University) where he excelled as a student. In 1858, he graduated valedictorian of his class, and was hired as a teacher.

By his early 20’s, O. V. Catto was one of the most influential African American leaders in Philadelphia.


Catto was a scholar, educator, athlete and a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard during the Civil War. He was active in recruiting African Americans to serve in the United States Army—the first African Americans to officially serve under federal colors. He was a member of numerous civic, literary, patriotic and political groups including the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Library Company, the 4th Ward Black Political Club, and the Union League Association.

O. V. Catto was tirelessly dedicated to social justice for all African Americans. In 1864, he attended a national convention of black leaders in Syracuse, New York, and he joined the National Equal Rights League. He became an officer in the Pennsylvania Chapter. In Philadelphia, Catto fought for the right for blacks to ride inside the streetcars, and then turned his energy to promoting voting rights for African Americans.

Catto was shot to death, On October 10, 1871, the first election day African Americans were allowed to vote.  He was only 32.  This was a result of his valiant efforts, in the face of violence and hostility toward black participation in political process, to turn out the black vote. Some who know the Catto story refer to him as the “Martin Luther King of the 19th century.” However, he is all but forgotten.



Catto Facts

  • Born Feb. 22, 1839 in Charleston, SC to Sarah Isabella Cain and Rev. William T. Catto, a Presbyterian minister

  • Moved with family to Philadelphia in 1844

  • 1854 He attended the new Institute for Colored Youth at 7th and Lombard, a school designed to produce leaders (later named Cheyney Univ.) From 1854-1858 he was valedictorian of his graduating class.  He was hired as a teacher that same year.

  • He was the city of Philadelphia’s most active African American leader, while only in his 20’s.

  • He was Captain and 2nd Baseman for the Pythians, the African American baseball team.

  • Was later inducted into the Negro League Baseball Museum’s Hall of Fame.

  • Held memberships in the 4th Ward Black Political Club, Union League, The Library Company and The Franklin Institute

  • Fought for the right to vote for African Americans.

  • Demanded that African Americans fight in the Civil War.

  • In 1863, he helped open a recruiting station at the Institute and led a unit to Harrisburg hoping to gain approval to fight in the Civil War.  They were turned down.  Soon thereafter, with help from the Union League and prominent citizens, African American regiments were inducted

  • A Major in the First Division of the state’s National Guard

  • Attended a national convention of black leaders in Syracuse, NY in 1864 and joined the National Equal Rights League.  Became an officer in the Pennsylvania Chapter.

  • Fought for the right for African Americans to ride inside the streetcars in Philadelphia.  The bill was signed into law on March 22, 1867

  • Shot to death on October 10, 1871 at the age of 32 as a result of his efforts to  promote voting rights for Philadelphia’s African Americans. “His funeral was the biggest and most elaborate ever held for black man in America.” The Union League displayed an American flag bordered in black in his honor. Many businesses closed in his honor.

  • Known from New York to Virginia