It was election day 1871, and the busy South Street area — the institutional and emotional heart of the black community — had been rocked by violence since the night before. Was it all the Squire’s doing? White policemen and Democrats who answered to him were attacking black voters, and scores had gone to the hospital. Catto had sent his pupils home early. Rather than going directly to his boardinghouse, he chose a safer route — up Lombard to Ninth Street, near his fiancée’s home, and then down to South Street. He lived at 814.
Catto walked with an assured, athletic gait, as if his right to the pavement were guaranteed. Which it was — but only lately. Memories of slavery haunted every colored home. Generations of men and women had risked their lives to claim the simplest of rights — to learn in a schoolhouse, serve in the army, ride the railways, cast a ballot. Now those rights were being tested. Catto turned onto South Street at the moment when, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s words, Americans of color “were first tasting freedom.”
As Catto walked east, the bandaged man was looking for more Negroes to hurt, more Negroes who would not be able to vote that day. He passed Catto nonchalantly, but once he was five steps beyond, the bandaged man turned and crouched. A young girl at 822 South shouted at Catto, “Look out for that man!”
The bandaged man was pulling out his gun.