Messages in Philadelphia’s Catto Memorials

When the School District of Philadelphia memorialized a 19th century civil rights leader by naming a disciplinary school after him, the organization sent a message about the value of black students.
Photograph of Octavius V. Catto, 1871. From the portrait studio of Messes, Broadbent, & Phillips. Public domain

I learned of Octavius Valentine Catto at a meeting with producers at History Making Productions. They were looking for a screenwriter for a short documentary about Philadelphia’s little-known nineteenth century civil rights martyr, and I was looking for opportunities to apply the writing and public history degrees I would soon receive. The city of Philadelphia will unveil a statue of Catto on September 26, 2017, and over the summer, producer and educator Amy Cohen and partner organizations prepared an educational initiative for middle and high school students to contextualize the city’s ceremony.

The producers told me Catto’s statue would be the city’s first public statue honoring an African American. I found this fact shocking. Philadelphia had been so black and free in the late 1700s, George Washington was afraid to bring his enslaved people with him when he moved into the first “White House”—a three-story mansion whose foundations now reside under Independence Mall—lest they be tempted by the freedom surrounding them. (Ona Judge, one of the nine people working at the President’s mansion and considered Washington’s property, managed to escape him from Philadelphia.) From the 1830s to the years just before the Civil War, people like William Still became legendary for their abolitionism and assistance on the Underground Railroad. W.E.B. DuBois conducted more than 2500 interviews with African Americans in the city’s 7th Ward for his 1899 socio-historical study, The Philadelphia Negro. The city continued to be a haven for free and free-minded black people in the twentieth century, attracting 35,000 African Americans fleeing the South during the Great Migration. Marian Anderson and Billie Holiday were born in Philadelphia. Street names recognize local civil rights leaders like Cecil B. Moore. Yet, in a city in which about 44 percent of the residents are Black or African American, there had been no public statues to Black Philadelphians who have made significant contributions to history—not even in the neighborhoods that are majority Black.

The absence of public monuments to African Americans in Philadelphia reminded me: when Black people make history in the United States, it’s usually not because they were well-behaved but because they escaped slavery and publicly rejected all notions of inferiority. It’s because they brought lawsuits against schools, institutions, governments, and businesses that denied them education, employment, service, or housing on account of their race. It’s because they petitioned, organized, marched, or led boycotts. It’s because they refused to go to war against other people of color. Sometimes, it’s because after they or another Black person before them laid the groundwork, they managed to survive being the first to step into a previously all-white space. It’s because they stood up to white supremacy, and in so doing, were trouble-makers.

And so as I dug into research on Catto, an African American teacher and activist who advocated for the abolition of slavery, classical education of African American youth, African American teachers to teach African American children, voting rights, and for the integration of the U.S. military, the city’s streetcars, and baseball, I found one of the previous ways Philadelphia had memorialized him ironic.

The Octavius V. Catto Disciplinary School opened in West Philadelphia in 1959. In his book, In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform (2012, University of Pennsylvania Press), John P. Spencer, chair of the Department of Education at Ursinus College, described the all-male, all-Black school as a place “where the superintendent sent students no one else could or would teach. … Starting on day one—the intake interview—administrators told incoming students and their parents that the main priority was to show up ‘and stay out of trouble.’” The students were told they were psychologically disturbed or had family problems. Corporal punishment was routine. Teachers held low expectations of students and sometimes encouraged fighting as a way to release energy. The school named for Octavius V. Catto was was not a place for intellectual stimulation. It was not a place suited for his name or his legacy.

Catto attended the Institute for Colored Youth, an elite African American high school in Philadelphia. Pupils studied Greek and Latin, Horace orations, higher forms of mathematics, and literature. For many years, they took oral exams in public to demonstrate black equality. Catto graduated valedictorian at the age of 18 and later returned to teach at the school. Eventually he became principal of the boys’ department.

Catto dismissed classes early on October 10, 1871, the day of Philadelphia’s mayoral election. With the fifteenth amendment to the United States Constitution ratified, Catto could vote, and a surge of new African American voters all but guaranteed defeat for the incumbent Democrat and the ideology of white supremacy he supported. In fear of losing their political power and economic opportunity, white men and Irish immigrant gangs in the police department and the neighborhood surrounding the Institute for Colored Youth beat, clubbed, and mobbed African American men in an attempt to obstruct their vote. A determined intimidator spotted Catto in the street, chased him behind one of the streetcars he had worked to desegregate, and shot him. Catto, 32, died with ballot tickets in his pocket.

To put “troublemakers” into a school named after someone who relentlessly made trouble for white supremacy is ironic in a cruel way. It demonstrates white supremacy in one of its most insidious forms. We recognize the kind that burns crosses (or lights tiki torches these days), chants racist slurs and commits acts of terrorism by driving its vehicle into crowds or dragging a beaten black person behind it. It’s more difficult to recognize white supremacy that quietly comes after Black children by labeling them dysfunctional, disproportionately enacting disciplinary measures against them, presuming they are older or less innocent than white children, or as is the case in Philadelphia, under-funding school districts where Black children are the majority.

I don’t know the people who opened Octavius V. Catto Disciplinary School. I can’t say their cruelty was on purpose. But white supremacy doesn’t have to be deliberately malicious to be effective; it’s systemic. That’s enough.

I welcome the monument to Catto at City Hall and was excited to write the documentary because, as we’ve been discussing throughout the country lately, symbols have meaning. Naming a disciplinary school after Catto was insulting to his legacy and sent an ugly message to students attending the school. It suggested that an ideology that would always see them as inferior, delinquent, and uneducable had won. While a statue is not enough to eradicate inequity, it injects Catto’s vision for equality for Black people and Black students into public memory. It honors someone who stood up to white supremacy, who agitated, petitioned, organized, and eventually influenced the text of civil rights law in his time. It says Catto was right to fight for equal rights. It reminds us of white supremacy’s threat to our very lives but implies that one day, our government just might honor our fight.

A model of the forthcoming memorial by Oakland-based artist, Branly Cadet. | Image courtesy of the O.V. Catto Memorial Fund.
Photograph by Megan Coleman. Courtesy the author.

Mariam Williams is a writer and producer on the documentary short, Octavius Catto: A Legacy for the 21st Century.