Octavius V. Catto, 1839-1871: Research Resources in Philadelphia Area Collections

Set against the backdrop of nineteenth century Philadelphia's flourishing activist African American community, Octavius V. Catto made a mark both locally and nationally. A learned man, he taught at the Institute for Colored Youth, later to become Cheyney University. Catto was linked to virtually every important black movement and the inner circle of Radical Republicans of his time. He raised African American troops to serve in the Civil War and in the late 1860s became a national spokesperson for enfranchisement and civil rights for African Americans. Catto was assassinated, along with several other blacks, in a riot during the election of 1871, one of the first elections in which Pennsylvania blacks could vote as a result of the state's ratification of the 15th Amendment. His funeral was reported as the most elaborate ever held for a black person in America. His death resonated beyond Pennsylvania.

--Adapted from V. Chapman-Smith, "Finding Octavius V. Catto:
Using Local History Stories for National History Day projects,"
in the 2007 National History Day Curriculum Book, forthcoming.

NEWS! Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin release Tasting Freedom: Octavius V. Catto and the Battle for Freedom in Civil War America, fall 2010. [details]
To aid students and other researchers in exploring Octavius V. Catto's life and times, members of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) and their research partners are developing an online archive of documents and other resources. This is a work in progress; as we build the section, we hope you will enjoy this preliminary page with items in our collections and links to other online resources.
Resources in Philadelphia Collections (preliminary)
(Click on thumbnails to view enlargements or documents)
Harper portrait - click for enlargement
Portrait of Octavius V. Catto, Harper's Weekly, October 28, 1871, Library Company of Philadelphia collection. Used with permission. See also: portrait with text describing Catto's murder.
Photo - described below. Click for enlargement
Banner of O. V. Catto Lodge, 1906, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia Collections. Used with permission.
Image - described below. Click for Adobe Acrobat document
Excerpts of minutes of the board of the Institute for Colored Youth mentioning O.V. Catto, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College. (Links to Adobe Acrobat document). Used with permission.
Image - described below. Click for Adobe Acrobat document
Lebanon Cemetery Interments for the week ending October 20, 1871, Returns of Death in the City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Archives. (Shows the names of three black men, including Catto, killed during the Election Day riot and the signature of the father of Catto's childhood friend, Jacob White. Used with permission.
Picture, described below
"Scene of the Shooting of Octavius V. Catto, on October 10, 1871." From The Trial of Frank Kelly for the Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto (pamphlet), 1888, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Used with permission. (View entire document as an Adobe Acrobat file )
Picture of document, described below
"Men of Color, to Arms! Now or Never!" Recruiting poster, 1863, signed by prominent African Americans, including O.V. Cato. The Library Company of Philadelphia. Used with permission. Also in the Library Company's holdings: Seven-foot poster, same text; poster for a Chester recruiting event
Photo, described below
800 block of South Street, late 20th Century. The modest rooming house in which O.V. Catto lived from at least 1861 to his death, 814 South Street, is the third building from the right. The Library Company of Philadelphia. Used with permission.

Researching O. V. Catto on the Web

  • ushistory.org: Read V. Chapman-Smith's article, "The Triumph and Tragedy of Octavius V. Catto , at http://ushistory.org/people/catto.htm
  • Harpers Online Black History - Harper's Weekly reports on black America from 1857-1874. The site has reports appearing in Harpers on northern, as well as southern, civil rights activities. http://blackhistory.harpweek.com
  • New York Times (Historical) Archives. This resource has articles appearing in the Times, starting from 1851. Several hits appear for Catto including articles on a memorial oration by Rev. Henry Highland Garnett at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York and the Catto officer appointment to the National Guard. The site at http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/nytarchive.html requires payment for articles. However, historical New York Times may be obtained free through ProQuest services available at subscribing public and research libraries.
  • Explore O.V. Catto's Philadelphia through the atlases and online city directory at the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network site (see "Pilot resources"). Search for "Catto" in the 1861 city directory to find out where he lived and what his occupation was. Then view the 1860 and 1875 atlases for a glimpse of his neighborhood. Please note that this is a work in progress. http://www.philageohistory.org/
  • For additional partner links, see PACSCL | National History Day/Philadelphia | Civil War History Consortium

Additional resource: a note on Catto-related census records.

We acknowledge with thanks the contributions and support of Lee Arnold, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Joan Decker, Department of Records, City of Philadelphia; Christopher Densmore, Swarthmore College; Phil Lapsansky, The Library Company of Philadelphia; Viki Sands, The Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia; and Anthony Waskie, Temple University, in locating these and other Octavius V. Catto resources in Philadelphia area collections or online. To suggest other resources, contact Laura Blanchard and V. Chapman-Smith