Octavius Catto, Colin Kaepernick & Athlete-Activists Turned Martyrs

By Kevin Rossi, Guest Contributor

Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing protest against racial injustice and police violence has created a unique lens with which to view the role sport can serve in the dialogue about race relations in the United States.

His message echoes that of the Black Lives Matter movement: police officers in the United States are shielded from consequences for their actions by engrained, institutional racism, and black and brown racial minorities are disproportionately impacted by the system. Plus, he took the conversation to the largely politically averse (at least in the moment) NFL fan during the national anthem, which was derided by many observers.

What was particularly striking was Kaepernick’s statement on September 21 when addressing death threats he received in response to his protest, saying:

To me, if something like that were to happen, you’ve proved my point, and it will be loud and clear for everyone why it happened, and that would move this movement forward at greater speed than what it is even now. Granted, I don’t want that to happen, but that’s the realization of what could happen, and I knew there were other things that came along with this when I first stood up and spoke about it. That’s not something I haven’t thought about [1].

Kaepernick’s honesty about threats of violence and the potential of martyrdom is important, especially within a historical context. His stand is reminiscent of John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman, who were expelled from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City and long ostracized for their stand, as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who boycotted the same Games. Muhammad Ali lost two years in the prime of his career for his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam War. Andrew McGregorAndrew D. Linden, and Kate Aguilar have recently discussed those and further examples on this site.

Here we can take another step back with the Reconstruction Era example of Octavius Catto. Catto encompassed not only athlete-activism and martyrdom, but also the racial injustices for which Kaepernick is expressly fighting. He was both an athlete-activist and the victim of a racially charged murder.

The Life and Death of Octavius Catto

Octavius Catto. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Octavius Catto. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

According to Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin’s 2010 book Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, Octavius Valentine Catto was born a free man to Sarah Cain and William T. Catto in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 22, 1839. William Catto, who himself was born into slavery before gaining his freedom, became a Presbyterian minister while in segregated Charleston. Troubled by the segregation in the church, he, Sarah, and their three children made their way to Philadelphia when Octavius was five years old [2].

Not only was there a rich tradition of black churches in Philadelphia, but there were also schools for black children. William knew that education would be an important part of the lives of his children if they were to make something of themselves – he himself was a founding member of the Banneker Literary Institute [3]. As his father moved from church to church as a minister, Octavius experienced life as a student at a few different schools in the Philadelphia area, before enrolling at the Institute for Colored Youth in 1854 [4].

The Institute, which was founded by Quakers in 1832 just south of South Street on Bainbridge Street between Ninth and 10th, served a key role in educating the privileged black class of Philadelphians. Bainbridge, at the time, “served as an informal line of racial demarcation between Philadelphia’s Irish and black populations” [5]. Antebellum Philadelphia, at the time, was a unique city. Laying between New York and Washington D.C., Philadelphia was very much a blend of the north and south, despite Pennsylvania long ago outlawing slavery. There was opportunity for the black population, but it did not come without segregation and racially motivated violence.

While at the Institute, in addition to his studies, Catto learned the sport of cricket, which was particularly popular in the city at the time. Following his graduation, he became an instructor at the Institute in 1859, educating the next generation of black leaders and elite. Over the course of his life, he would hold positions as instructor at the prestigious Banneker Literary Institute, cofounder of the Philadelphia chapter of the pro-suffrage Union League Association, and secretary for the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League. Catto was a member about a dozen groups, societies, and organizations; he was the first black member of the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Music [6].

When the Civil War began, Catto, who was strongly pro-abolition, enlisted to serve; however, despite advancing to the rank of major, he never fought in battle. Instead, as Ryan Swanson wrote in When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime, Catto used the skills he learned playing cricket to transition to the sport of the troops looking to kill time: baseball [7].

Following his time in service, Catto coupled his newfound skill as a baseball player with his activism and community work. As was typical for the time, sport and politics were inextricably linked, especially for black athletes, who were shut out from many other cultural institutions. In 1866, Catto, along with his longtime friend Jacob C. White, started the Pythian Base Ball Club, the second all-black squad in Philadelphia. Catto was a middle infielder and the team captain – “a modern-day player-manager, setting the batting order and positioning players around the diamond” [8]. Many of the Pythian Club organizers were active in political and social institutions across the city.

As the Pythian Club downed opponents from as far as Washington D.C. to start the 1867 season, Catto had bigger aspirations for the club: integrate the game of baseball. At the urging of Catto, the club attempted to gain membership in the all-white Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players (PAABBP). The club was represented at the convention by Raymond Burr, the club’s vice president. Despite Burr’s close tie to Hicks Hayhurst, a prominent figure in the Philadelphia baseball scene, there was pressure for the team to revoke its application so the association would not have to formally turn it down. Burr telegraphed Catto for help. Catto’s response was clear and concise: “Fight if there was a chance” [9]. When a subsequent attempt to gain more affirmative votes failed, Burr ended up rescinding the application.

The Pythian Club would not be deterred in its pursuit for integration, instead going about it another way. To this point, a white baseball club had never played a black club. A man named Thomas Fitzgerald was determined to change that reality. Fitzgerald was a racially progressive, white Irishman, who was the editor of the City Item newspaper in Philadelphia, as well as the former president of the Athletic Club, the top baseball team in Philadelphia.

Fitzgerald fiercely advocated for universal voting rights within the pages of the City Item. His progressive platform is believed to have ultimately led to his ouster by the Athletic Club. Swanson writes in When Baseball Went White:

The struggle to oust Thomas Fitzgerald from the Athletic Club embodied elements of the broader Reconstruction-era struggle in Philadelphia. Fitzgerald’s stance on race relations was his most controversial view and his most potent liability in the racially conservative baseball community. It probably cost him. The level of fervency behind one’s support for racial progress could not surpass certain unstated ceilings without drawing a considerable backlash. It might have been acceptable for Fitzgerald to editorialize that blacks should have some civil rights in the South, for example. But to tout universal suffrage in the years immediately following the Civil War, for Philadelphia as well as the South, crossed an important divide [10].

Despite no longer being formally involved with baseball in Philadelphia, Fitzgerald again used the City Item as a tool, taking aim at integrating the game with a particular vigor in 1869. He wrote glowingly of black teams and developed a particular affection for Catto and the Pythian Club. He challenged white clubs directly, asking rhetorically, “Who will put the ball in motion?” [11]. Fitzgerald sought the Athletics Club specifically, not because of any lingering ill feelings from his ouster but because of the Pythian’s prowess, but it would not accept. However, the Olympic Club, a well-known team in Philadelphia, would eventually accept an invitation to play the Pythian Club on September 3, 1869. While the Pythian Club would lose, 44-23, the game succeeded in bridging the racial divides, and games between black and white teams sprung up throughout the northeast.

For all of the success he had seen on the field, Catto continued to find success off the field as well. The August 11, 1870 edition of the Evening Star in Washington D.C. reported that Catto, who by now was a principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, was offered the position of superintendent for the entire black public school system in the nation’s capital [12]. He agreed to a one-month term, which was lauded as a success.

Catto was not listed on the Pythian Club’s roster for the 1871 season, but he continued his fight for equality. Of particular interest, as had been an interest of Fitzgerald’s, was voting rights. In February of 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, granting African Americans the right to vote. The elections on October 10, 1871 were particularly important in Philadelphia, with the mayor’s position up for grabs. While Catto taught his morning slate of classes at the Institute for Colored Youth, turmoil erupted across the city.

White Democrats, with the aid of a complicit police force, were violently impeding blacks from voting – three black men were murdered that day. When Catto left the Institute, he purchased a handgun to carry for protection then continued on his way to vote. He was stopped at the intersection of Eighth and South, about half a block from his home on South Street, by a white man named Frank Kelly. Kelly was patrolling the streets as part of a group of white men under William McMullen, who was the head of the local Moyamensing Hose Company, a Democrat, and known in the area as a sort of political enforcer. Swanson describes the fatal encounter between Catto and Kelly in When Baseball Went White:

An argument ensued. Someone in the area called out to Catto, prompting him to turn in response. Kelly then drew his pistol and fired at Catto. Catto immediately raised his hands. Kelly fired again. Catto fled, darting behind a passing streetcar. According to a witness, Catto bounded off the sidewalk and sprinted down the middle of South Street with Kelly close behind. Kelly fired two more shots at Catto, both of which found their mark. The witnessed recalled that after the last bullets hit, Catto “whirled around and threw up his hands” before crumpling to the ground [13].

The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 11, 1871.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 11, 1871.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the next day that Catto was carried to the Fifth District Station, unable to speak a word, and died shortly after arrival [14]. He was 32 years old. His funeral was held 145 years ago this Sunday.

In an article titled “A Colored Martyr” on October 30, 1871, the New York Times wrote of Rev. Henry Highland Garnett addressing a crowd at Shiloh Presbyterian Church, Catto “was sleeping in death, but the principles for which he died still live and grow” [15]. W.E.B. DuBois wrote of Catto’s murder in The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study in 1899:

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 in the second city of the land; to the politicians it furnished a text and example which was strikingly effective and which they did not hesitate to use. The result of all this was an outburst of indignation and sorrow, which was remarkable, and which showed a determined stand for law and order. The outward expression of this was a great mass meeting, attended by some of the best citizens, and a funeral for Catto which was perhaps the most imposing ever given to an American Negro [16].

Catto’s murderer, Frank Kelly, escaped that day, eluded police, and was on the run for more than five years. On January 16, 1877, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a tip had led to Kelly’s arrest in Chicago [17]. After a lengthy trial, Kelly was found not guilty on May 4, 1877. The Philadelphia Inquirer the next day reported that the jury had come to the not guilty verdict because it felt too much time had elapsed to properly identify the shooter [18].

Why Octavius Catto’s Life Still Matters

The parallels between Octavius Catto’s murder and the murders of blacks today at the hands of police are evident. His hands were up, he was running away, and his murderer never spent any time behind bars for the crime. Catto was able to rise to prominence in Philadelphia, not just amongst black men but amongst all men in the city, and he still was not immune to racism’s stranglehold.

Catto’s work to integrate baseball set the stage for the likes of Fleetwood Walker in 1884 and later Jackie Robinson post-color barrier. The city of Philadelphia, behind the legacy of Catto and the Pythian Club, would go on to become one of the prominent cities for Negro League baseball.

The role of City Item editor Thomas Fitzgerald in Catto’s activism highlights the importance of whites standing in solidarity with blacks in the struggle against racism. Michael Bennett recently challenged white players around the NFL, and soccer player Megan Rapinoe was the first white athlete to take a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick.

Photo from author.

Photo from author.

Catto’s presence is still felt throughout Philadelphia, from historical markers to the statue planned for unveiling at City Hall next spring to the Octavius V. Catto Community School just across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, to the Major Octavius V. Catto Medal awarded annually to a distinguished Pennsylvania National Guard member. Even the Institute for Colored Youth lives on, now as Cheyney University, a historically black college located about 30 miles southwest of where Catto once taught.

Just as Octavius Catto once used his platform in baseball to advocate for racial equality, Colin Kaepernick is using football to create a dialogue about the injustices the black community faces at the hands of the police. But while Catto’s message came at a time when many were unwilling to listen, Kaepernick’s message has found its mark and continued a nationwide conversation.

Kevin Rossi is a recent graduate of Drexel University’s communication, culture, and media master’s program interested in the intersection of sport and politics. He is an athletic communications assistant at Drexel. He can be reached on Twitter @kevin_rossi and by email at kevintrossi@gmail.com.


[1] “Colin Kaepernick on death threats: if I’m killed ‘you’ve proved my point’” The Guardian, September 21, 2016.
[2] Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Philadelphia, PA; Temple University Press; 2010), pg. 25.
[3] Ibid, 181.
[4] Ibid, 155.
[5] Ryan Swanson, When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime (Lincoln, NE; University of Nebraska Press; 2014), pg. 54.
[6] Ibid, 52.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 50.
[9] Ibid, 79.
[10] Ibid, 66.
[11] Ibid, 84.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 144.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid, 39-40.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Octavius Catto, Colin Kaepernick & Athlete-Activists Turned Martyrs

  1. Based off of the past with Octavius Catto and how he needed to carry a gun to ensure his safety after fighting for basic rights for black and white interracial teams which seems so minimal now because in our generation it doesn’t seem like a huge deal to us, do you think that Kaepernick should actually be worried about all these death threats? Does sitting for the national anthem make him actually an activist for black rights? Do you think hell get the results he’s looking for by sitting during the national anthem, or will he end up dead just like Catto?


  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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