On October 10, 1871—141 years ago today—a 32-year-old African American educator and prominent civil rights activist was murdered during election day violence in Philadelphia.
Racial tensions, which were already high aftermath of the American Civil War, flared during the 1871 election, when mostly Republican African American voters faced threats and violence at the hands of white voters who sought to maintain Democratic control and prevent African Americans from voting, despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Although city police were supposed to prevent violence, in some sections of the city they too took part in efforts to block African American citizens from casting their ballots. When Octavius Catto headed to the polls that day (carrying a revolver for protection), a white man fatally shot him three times in the street.
Although the identity of the killer was well known, he was never convicted of the crime; it was quite common at this time for white men to go unpunished for violence against African Americans. Catto was one of several individuals killed that day.
It would be over a century before efforts were made to commemorate Catto’s life. In 2006, the O.V. Catto Memorial announced a fundraising campaign for a memorial statute; in 2011, the city of Philadelphia pledged $500,000 to the proposed memorial.
To learn more, check out Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin’s Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Temple University Press 2010). (Visit the book’s webpage here.)
This article from Pennsylvania History provides a lot of information about Catto. This page from the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries provides photographs and documents.
For more information, check out Henry Griffin’s The Trial of Frank Kelly, for The Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto, On October 10, 1871, part of Gale’s The Making of Modern Law collection.
To see the New York Times release of election results, click here.
To see photographs from the 2007 dedication of a headstone at Catto’s burial site, click here.
At the time of Catto’s murder, the Fifteenth Amendment had just given African Americans the right to vote. Only a few years later, legislation would be put into effect to disfranchise African Americans. For more on disfranchisement, click here, or check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press 2001).