Chapter 4: With Giants

OCTAVIUS CATTO WAS nine years old when his father said prayers with the giants. It was late on an October night, past bedtime for children in Philadelphia’s most respectable colored homes—especially the children of a new-in-town, Southern-born minister, a widower with a new young wife. But Rev. W. T. Catto had already made an impression with his sermons about personal duty (we must all “contribute our something” or “be pushed aside”) and his devil-may-care willingness to host antislavery meetings at a time when Philadelphia pastors of both races were still hemming and hawing. Also, the roster of visiting speakers on the night of October 3, 1848, was enough to make parents consider letting a promising child stay up late to learn something.

Two days of antislavery strategy meetings were already under way at Brick Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church. After suppertime, people began to fill the church’s wooden benches, a hut compared to the soaring pillars and segregated stairwells the Catto family had known at Second Presbyterian in Charleston. By the time Catto eased his way to the pulpit, as many as eight hundred people filled Brick Wesley. Those who could not squeeze past the doors stood in the flickering light of Lombard Street’s lamps and prepared to crane their necks. Grownups said the giants of the race were coming.

Image source Historical Museum of Southern Florida. Click to view original.

Giants! Their names had a colossal ring—Charles Lenox Remond from Salem, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass from Rochester, Dr. Martin Delany of Pittsburgh; perhaps Henry Highland Garnet, the one-legged New York preacher who had caused an uproar a few years back by proposing a slave revolt. The colored Philadelphians in the room included stalwarts of the 1838 suffrage fight, the storming of Pennsylvania Hall, and the riots of 1842. At least five of the Underground Railroad operatives were in the church: Robert and Harriet Forten Purvis; Dr. J. J. Gould Bias and his wife, Eliza Anne; John P. Burr; and more were on the way.

Douglass was due on a steamboat at 11:00 p.m. Catto asked for volunteers to escort the young sensation from the Walnut Street wharf. When Catto was finished recruiting, the greeting party numbered fifty. This gesture was as much about safety as formality. Every colored man and woman in the church knew the risks of walking alone from the docks at night, and the added risks if the walker was the increasingly recognizable Douglass. He could not board one of the hulking horse-pulled omnibuses that plied the city streets. They were for whites.

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A Call to Arms

Click to get a closer look, you can see the name of Octavius Catto at the bottom, as well as his father's.

This broadside is eight feet high and was seen on windows in downtown Philadelphia in June, 1863, as black leaders called a meeting to convince black men to join the Union Army prior to Gettysburg.