But none sacrificed more than Octavius Catto, a baseball player who fought for equality for African Americans. As Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin wrote in their book, “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America,” Catto was “an orator who shared stages with Frederick Douglass, a second baseman on the city’s best Black baseball team … and an activist who had fought in the state capital and on the streets for equal rights.” Then, on Oct. 10, 1871, at age 32, he ran through Philadelphia to protect Black voters from violence. He was met with violence himself, ending the life of one of America’s first activist-athletes.
Catto was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1840. His father William moved his family to Philadelphia, where he hoped his children could achieve a level of equality impossible in the South. He graduated as valedictorian from the Institute for Colored Youth and became a teacher. When the Civil War began, he organized a company of African American volunteers and rose to the rank of major.
After the war, Catto returned to Philadelphia, where he served as principal of the Colored Youth Institute and worked to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolley cars, just as Rosa Parks would help desegregate buses nearly a century later.
He also played baseball. He was the founder, captain, and star player of the Pythian team, the best Black team in Philadelphia. The team traveled the region playing other Black teams. In Washington, D.C., they played the Alerts, whose second baseman was Charles Douglass. Douglass’s father, Frederick, sat in the stands and watched the game.
In 1867, the Pythian team applied to join the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Amateur Association of Base Ball Players. It application was denied. If the team was admitted, the association said, “there would be, in all probability, some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them, no injury could result to anyone.” This established the segregation precedent in baseball, Ryan Swanson wrote in “When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime.”
But Catto pressed on. He and the Pythians challenged Philadelphia’s best white teams to a game, and on Sept. 3, 1869, they lost, 44-23, to the all-white Olympics. The New York Times called it “the first game played between a white and colored club.”
After a stint running Black schools in Washington, he returned to Philadelphia to run the Institute for Colored Youth. He also continued his fight for Black suffrage. He joined Frederick Douglass in giving speeches calling for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that no citizen could be kept from voting “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Catto exhorted Blacks to register as Republicans because the party had supported the amendment. In 1870, Blacks voted for the first time in Philadelphia and elected Republican candidates. Democrats were determined to keep Blacks from voting during the following year’s election. White thugs menaced voters outside polls. Dozens were injured. One man was murdered with a hatchet blow to the skull.
When Catto learned that African Americans were being attacked as they attempted to vote, he dismissed classes at his school and ran toward the violence. He was confronted by a mob. A scuffle ensued. Catto, unhurt, continued on South Street. He passed Frank Kelly, a white Democratic Party operative, who recognized Catto. Kelly raised his pistol. A passerby yelled out a warning to Catto, who began to run. A bullet caught him.
Kelly fired again and again. Catto collapsed, dead in the street.
Catto’s murder — or assassination, as it was often described — became an international story. The Chronicle, a white newspaper in the District, reported that Catto had been assassinated “because he was one of the fearless champions of his race.” The Times of London described Catto, who had graduated valedictorian from the Institute of Colored Youth, where he had studied the Greek and Latin classics, as a man “of learning and intelligence.”
The New National Era, a newspaper published in Washington, D.C., that was edited by the civil rights activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, even called Catto a martyr. “His death will not have been in vain,” the newspaper said, “if it rouses the people of this city and country of a more earnest determination to protect citizens of every class and color in the exercise of a citizen’s most sacred right — the right to vote as his conscience directs him.”
The Philadelphia Sunday Mercury had a different take: It called Catto a victim of his own politics. “What American,” the newspaper said, “could witness the scenes exhibited in parts of our city last Thursday, without feeling disgusted at the attempt to foist political equality between the descendants of Europeans and Africans?”
Mourners waited in line for hours when Catto was laid to rest. The Philadelphia Press called him “the pride of his race in the city” and the “ablest and best educated among the colored men reared in Philadelphia.”
Kelly fled town after Catto’s death. He was eventually captured and returned to Philadelphia for trial. Witnesses identified Kelly as the murderer. The Philadelphia Times said the evidence was “overwhelming” to convict Kelly. An all-white jury exonerated him.
Catto passed into obscurity. He was rarely, if ever, mentioned outside Philadelphia in the stories of other activist-athletes whom he preceded by decades.
Athletes used their clout in unprecedented ways this summer to confront racial violence, in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. As they did, protesters in Philadelphia often congregated near a statue of Octavius Catto, which became the first memorial in the city honoring an African American when it was unveiled in 2017.
The statue includes an inscription from Catto’s writings: “There must come a change,” it says, “which shall force upon this nation that course which providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of peoples.”
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