Commentary

150 years after his murder, the resurrection of Octavius Catto continues | Michael Coard

He is resurrected each time a Black person votes, and each time a Black student follows Catto’s lead by attending historic Cheyney University

Cheyney University (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D’Onofrio)

By Michael Coard

One-hundred-fifty years ago, on Election Day, Oct. 10, 1871, voting rights crusader, civil rights activist, Institute for Colored Youth/Cheyney University administrator/educator, and Negro Leagues Baseball organizing forerunner Octavius Valentine Catto was murdered — correction, crucified.

In this 2017 photo, Michael Coard’s three godsons, Tyray, from left, Zyon and Jah wear Cheyney University baseball caps and Cheyney University buttons as they surround the O.V. Catto Memorial outside City Hall ( Photo courtesy of Michael Coard/The Philadelphia Tribune).

Fortunately, there are modern-day pro-Black social justice soldiers who not only remember and mourn Catto but, much more important, celebrate and avenge him.

By the way, avenge, unlike revenge, is a good thing. It simply means “the vindication, i.e., the upholding, of a cause.” And in Philadelphia on Oct. 10, social justice soldier Joe Certaine and several other civic-minded individuals — including, but not limited to, those from Cheyney University, the Historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the Philadelphia NAACP chapter, O.V. Catto Elks Lodge Number 20, the City Commissioner’s Office, PA Youth Vote, PA Coalition in Defense of Democracy, and the O.V. Catto Voter Empowerment Initiative — engaged together in the relentless, 150-year-old battle to avenge Catto and his mission.

I wrote the name Joe Certaine because most people familiar with pro-Black Pennsylvania politics in general and pro-Black Philadelphia politics in particular during the past approximately 50 years know him by that name.

However, he prefers his cultural and spiritual name, “Jemadari,” that was conveyed upon him in a 1981 Kwaida (which is a Swahili word referencing pan-African nationalism) public naming ceremony by Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa. That name signifies a top military officer rank in the nationalist Black liberation movement.

Jemadari explains his involvement in celebrating and avenging Catto as follows,

“Until now, the mainstream historians would have us believe that Catto’s advocacy and activism died when he was murdered. We say that Catto initiated a voting and civil rights movement that includes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Malcolm X, and many other activists who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Contrary to the mission of the mainstream authors and historians, the ‘Spirit of Catto’ motivates and inspires all of us who continue his work. He leads us forward, like the pillar of fire through the darkness of fear and intimidation that would serve to keep us as lesser than who we truly are.”

Here’s the background from Oct. 10, 1871: On that day, a block from Catto’s home at Eighth and South streets, a white man — angered by Catto’s relentless and courageous rallying cries to Black men to fearlessly exercise their 1870 15th Amendment right to vote — brutally and cowardly murdered him with two shots to the body.

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The man then fled to Chicago, but was extradited six years later. Despite having been identified by six eyewitnesses during the 1877 trial, an all-white jury acquitted him on all charges after a white cop testified on the white murderer’s behalf.

In addition to being a fearless voting rights and civil rights activist as well as a math professor, an English professor, and principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, which eventually became Cheyney University, Catto was also a star Black baseball player, strategic Black baseball manager, and tactical Black baseball organizer.

And he was instrumental in establishing Phily as a major hub in what, 55 years later, would eventually become Negro Leagues Baseball in 1920. Catto, along with Jacob C. White Jr., a fellow intellectual, educator and civil rights activist, in 1865 established the Philadelphia Pythians, one of the country’s first Black baseball clubs.

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Although the beginning of the official banning of Black players from Major League baseball was July 14, 1887, serious plans for such banning actually started 20 years earlier on Oct. 16, 1867 when the Pennsylvania State Convention of Baseball in Harrisburg denied admission to Catto’s Pythians team.

Catto himself served as field captain and manager of the Pythians.

In the fall of 1867, Catto and the Pythians applied to join Pennsylvania’s association of amateur baseball clubs. Despite its athletic talent, organizational skills, and business prowess, the Pythians — the only Black club- was the only club to not receive entry out of the 266 clubs seeking to be a part of the association. The Pythians’ representative was compelled to withdraw the Pythians’ application when it was obvious that the deciding committee would bow to racist opposition pressure. A second application submitted later that same year, this time to the National Association of Base Ball Players, was also rejected when that association said it would not admit “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.”

Just as the roots of Negro Leagues Baseball began to strengthen right here in the Philly area thanks to Catto, 31 years after his murderous crucifixion as a kind of cultural resurrection with the establishment of the Philadelphia Giants in 1902 and then in 1910 with both the Hilldale Athletics and the Darby Daisies, so, too, did the roots of Black male and female voting rights 94 years later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Octavius V. Catto’s death was not permanent. That is because he is resurrected each time a Black person votes — and also each time a Black student follows Catto’s lead by attending historic Cheyney University.

Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared. 

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