New statue hon­ors Oc­tavius Catto’s fight for civil rights

The Review - - News - Don Scott A Place In His­tory Don “Og­be­wii” Scott, a Mel­rose Park res­i­dent, can be reached at More in­for­ma­tion about his lo­cal his­tory books can be found at kum­bayahu­ni­ver­

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.

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