Chapter 5: “Lessons”

OCTAVIUS was turning ten. He was not the eldest of the ever-increasing Catto brood, or even the oldest boy. But he took well to all his lessons at the Lombard Street Colored School, and he had his father’s physical strength and grace.

Persuasive soon turned up in people’s impressions of the son as well.

He had dark brooding eyes set against caramel-colored skin—“very light and very bright,” an acquaintance wrote. In his high cheekbones one could imagine traces of the Indian bloodline that had spared his mother’s family from paying the Negro tax. At the corners of his fulsome lips there played the slightest hint of mirth.

He was said to be a star pupil: “outstanding scholarly work, great energy, and perseverance in school matters.” Adults may have made the air around him thick with praise, for he fairly shimmered with confidence. Before long, he was writing gaudy notes to girls about “true poetic fervor.”

His full name was a wicked mouthful for a child. Some of his brothers and sisters had the same names as a parent, a grandparent, an aunt—William, Mary, and Francis. Others got names, as was the fashion, that saluted heroes and served as little primers of history.

There was Garrison Catto. The next boy, Beman, arrived after his father had come to know Rev. Amos Gerry Beman, a colored abolition leader whose pulpit was in New Haven but who traveled to meetings in New York and Philadelphia. (Beman named his own son for Charles Torrey, who died for the cause in a Maryland jail.)

For Beman’s middle name, William Catto turned to the movement’s eloquent amputee. Thus, one Catto son went through life with three names of men in the struggle against “complexional intolerance”: Beman Garnet Catto.

But Beman had it easy compared with his big brother, the only Catto child burdened with a Latin lesson for a name: Octavius Valentine. Why the middle name? The baby arrived six days after Saint Valentine’s Day.

People took to calling him O.V.

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We like to talk. Our publicist put us in front of a video camera, asked three questions and then crossed his fingers. We're probably a little too serious at the beginning, but we loosen up as the video goes on.
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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.