I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:
“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Civil Rights Activist
Civil Rights Activist
(February 22, 1839 – October 10, 1871)
Octavius Catto was the greatest civil rights leader in post-Civil War Philly. Mayor Jim Kenney has pushed for a statue honoring Catto for the last decade; now he says one will be unveiled by spring 2017 on the southwest apron of City Hall. It will be Philadelphia’s first public statue honoring a solo African American. Catto was an educator, athlete, and major in the Pennsylvania National Guard who recruited African Americans to serve in the military and who led the successful protest to integrate Philadelphia’s horse-drawn streetcars. He was assassinated on election day in 1871, as blacks fought for the right to vote. “All that [the colored man] asks is that there shall be no unmanly quibbles about entrusting to him any position of honor or profit for which his attainments may fit him,” Catto said.
- Attended segregated Vaux Primary School, Lombard Grammar School. Then attended all-white Allentown Academy
- Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University)
- Inducted into the Franklin Institute, despite pushback of whites
- “The Jackie Robinson of his time”: Helped establish Negro League Baseball and ran the undefeated Pythian Baseball Club of Philadelphia that played the first black versus white game
- Life story told in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Inquirer alums Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle.
- Sam Katz’s History Making Productions produced short film, “Tasting Freedom: The Life of Octavius V. Catto”
“We shall never rest at ease, but will agitate and work, by our means and by our influence, in court and out of court, asking aid of the press, calling upon Christians to vindicate their Christianity, and the members of the law to assert the principles of the profession by granting us justice and right, until these invidious and unjust usages shall have ceased,” Catto said.
Home page image: Reaching For Your Star © 2003 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Don Gensler. Photo by Jack Ramsdale