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'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

A century before the civil rights protests in Selma and Birmingham, a 27-year-old African-American named Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's horse-drawn streetcars.

He did it in 1866 with the help of other prominent activists, including Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass. Catto raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War; he pushed for black voting rights; and he started an all-black baseball team -- all before the age of 32.

And if you visit Octavius Catto's grave at Eden Cemetery, just outside Philadelphia, his epitaph reads: "The Forgotten Hero"

It was that forgotten history that prompted two reporters, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, to dig deeper. They talked to NPR's Guy Raz about their new book, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.

Early Beginnings

Catto was born in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 22, 1839. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a descendant of a prominent free mixed-race family. His father had been a slave millwright in South Carolina; after being freed, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and ultimately became a leader in the black church.

The Catto family moved north to Philadelphia when Octavius was about 5. There, he stood out as a star student. He graduated in 1858 as valedictorian of the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University, a historically black college.

Catto wanted to continue his studies, so he left to do postgraduate work and receive private tutoring in Latin and Greek in Washington, D.C.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, he began teaching at his alma mater. By his 20s, he'd already accomplished much: He founded the Banneker Literacy Institute; was inducted into The Franklin Institute, a scientific organization; and was an accomplished baseball player and founder of Pythian Baseball Club. Yet he was frustrated with the discrimination that kept him from accomplishing more.

The Political Arena

At age 24, Catto dove into the world of politics. It was the summer of 1863, just after the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania. Young Octavius responded to a call for emergency troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies with black soldiers and white officers. He also joined with Frederick Douglass to help raise all-black regiments.

Catto would walk through the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia putting up posters that read: "Men of color, to arms to arms, now or never."

"The message of [the poster] is it is now or never for proving that black men can fight bravely and sacrifice for the union," author Murray Dubin says.

Although Catto didn’t see action during the Civil War, he did earn the rank of major for his recruiting efforts.

Desegregating Public Transit

Only a year later, Catto turned his attention to desegregating Philadelphia’s horse-drawn public transit system. Throughout the war, family members and friends were unable to visit black troops who were injured because they were not permitted to ride on streetcars.

"After the Civil War, Catto and a lot of other black men and women decide they must do something about this, so a campaign starts," Dan Biddle says.

The campaign began quietly: People held meetings and wrote letters, but for Catto, Biddle says, that wasn't enough.

"While we can find very few instances of civil disobedience prior to that, somewhere Catto figured out that was the way to do it. And we believe what he did is organized pregnant women, he organized college students, to simply go on the street cars en masse," Biddle says.

Catto's early calls for acts of public defiance were almost unimaginable in that time.

The Vote, And The End

His final cause was voting rights for blacks. With the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, African-Americans were enfranchised, but there were many ways people tried to prevent them from exercising that right.

Catto worked tirelessly to help black people in Philadelphia register to vote for the 1871 election.

"It [was] anticipated that just about every black man that is going to vote is going to vote Republican," Dubin says. "The white Democrats are well aware of this and felt skunked about how many black men had gotten out to vote in 1870 ... and it was clear that they weren't going to let that happen again."

The violence began the night before the election. Gangs of white thugs went to black neighborhoods to discourage residents from voting and murdered several black men. Catto was also a target.

"You have to understand, Catto was a very well-known guy -- everyone knows who he is. He's a jock, he's a political figure, he speaks publicly. So whites and blacks know who he is. He cannot walk down the street unnoticed," Biddle says.

Catto was walking home, near his front door, and was confronted by Frank Kelly, a Democratic Party operative and associate of the party's boss.

Kelly was armed, Catto was not -- and soon, he was shot dead.

The Legacy

Catto's murder sparked a public outcry, and his funeral was described as "the biggest public funeral in the city perhaps ever at that point, rivaling that of Civil War heroes," Biddle says.

But today, for the most part, Octavius Catto is a forgotten hero.

"I'd love to tell you that Martin Luther King knew about Catto and that's why he did what he did, but I can't prove that," Biddle says. But it was the shoulders of Catto and dozens of other men and women "that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy ... stood on top of."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.