New statue honors Octavius Catto’s fight for civil rights
I couldn’t help but think of the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois, who traveled to Philadelphia during the late 1890s to conduct a revolutionary study of the city’s blacks, when I visited the south side of City Hall the other day to see the newly erected statue of Octavius Valentine Catto, a black man shot to death by a white bigot in October 1871 while standing up for his people’s civil rights.
Just six years following the CivilWar, local white racists were so nervous about the upward mobil- ity of blacks — including obtaining voting rights — they rioted and murdered African Americans mercilessly, especially in what is today South Philly.
And that’s where Catto lived and worked as a teacher and administrator at the Institute for Col- ored Youth, a precursor of my undergraduate alma mater, Cheyney University, as well as was active as a noted scholar, orator and leader of a pioneering baseball team of black players, the Pythians.
“The murder of Catto came at a critical moment; to the Negroes it seemed a revival of the old slavery time riots in the day when they were first tasting freedom; to the better classes of Philadelphia it revealed a serious state of barbarism and lawlessness …,” wrote DuBois, whom had been in 1895 the first African American to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate, in his study’s resulting book, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.”
DuBois would go on to be hired as a professor at Atlanta University by a former white Union army officer, Horace Bumstead, who had become the school’s president and formerly based at the first and largest federal facility to train black soldiers during the Civil War, Camp William Penn, that once stood in nearby Cheltenham Township.
Sadly, at today’s “critical moment” in U.S. history, the racistmentality of too many Americans is all too obvious, especially considering the death threats made against free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for “taking a knee” during the singing of the national anthem to peacefully protest continuing racism and the murder of mostly black males by law enforcement.
If Octavius Catto still lived today, he’d be quite proud of Kaepernick, but sickened by the continuing racism that plagues America.
Other black athletes supporting the heroic Kaepernick, as well as some white supporters, have also faced such threats as cowardly team owners re- fuse to hire the superb athlete and our goofy but vicious president, Donald Trump, fans the fires of white-nationalist hatred.
As some commentators have observed, such rabid reactions surely confirm that Kaepernick and his supporters are absolutely justified in their demonstrations.
In fact, there is one thing that I have in common with folks who say that they are boycotting the NFL because they oppose Kaepernick and his supporters.
You see, although I would never pay good money to see a live game at a stadium, I’m not watching those contests on television until some team — including the Eagles — summons up the courage and decency to hire Kaepernick.
Plus, to tell the truth, despite the high salaries of many professional black ballplayers, the system seems eerily similar to slave-block auctions, especially during draft ceremonies and the like, dynamics thoroughly examined by former New York Times writer William C. Rhoden in his 2006 book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.”
The book aptly criticizes wealthy black athletes signing lucrative endorsement contracts from advertisers who don’t give a hoot about African-American empowerment as the athletes rarely reinvest enough in communities, entities or causes to propel black upward mobility.
Outstandingly, though, there are some folks who are reinvesting millions in such causes and speak out against bigotry by supporting Kaepernick, including NBA star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And there have been many others who’ve risked much to speak out against intolerance and helped African Americans before and after Octavius Catto started near the end of the Civil War in 1865 the allblack Pythians baseball team, the first to officially play a white team in Philadelphia.
Susan Parrish Wharton, a white Quaker supporter of black civil rights during the late 1800s and early 1900s, was so concerned about the struggles of newly arrived black immigrants from the South in Philadelphia (that included some of my ancestors from South Carolina where Catto’s folks hailed from) that she wrote a letter to the provost at the University of Pennsylvania to request that massive study of African-American life in the city.
She asked that the primary investigating scholar be W.E.B. Dubois, who completed the landmark project in 1899 then traveled to Atlanta University to work with President Bumstead, the former Camp William Penn officer, co-founding in 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that today fiercely supports the heroism of Colin Kaepernick.
It’s the same bravery that’s reflected in the statuesque gaze of O.V. Catto into the heart of a city that he gave his very life for on Oct. 10, 1871, almost 150 years ago.