Octavius Catto (1839-1871)

He was born in South Carolina, a state that banned black learning. But his preacher father took him North and made learning a mission. Octavius grew up to teach Tennyson, quote Tocqueville, and lead fights for equal rights in the state house and the streets.

William T. Catto (1810-1871)

Raised a “free” man of color in the slave South, Octavius’ father made himself indispensible – to whites, as a fixer of mills that served the rice plantations; to blacks, as a writer of petitions and leader of prayers. He talked his way into a white church’s foreign mission program — “My heart is set for Africa,” he wrote. But soon he was saying prayers with Frederick Douglass and preaching equal rights.

Caroline Le Count (1846-1923)

An undertaker’s daughter, she outscored all the boys in her class, struck up a correspondence with a Union army general, became only the second black woman named principal of a Philadelphia public school, and put her body on the line in the battle to integrate the streetcars. Soon she was noticed on the arm of a fellow activist, Octavius Catto.

Fanny Jackson (1837-1913)

Born a slave in Washington, D. C., at a time when white mobs were attacking Negro schoolhouses, she became one of the very few black women accepted into an American college before the Civil War, and stepped swiftly into the front lines of black education and equal rights campaigns.

Jacob C. White Jr (1837-1902)

Octavius’ friend since childhood, Jake, like Le Count and others, grew up in an Underground Railroad home where parents led secret lives as smugglers of fugitives. A keeper of meticulous records and officer of numerous organizations, he was a calm contrast to his extroverted ally, Catto. He, too, went on to lead schools and equal-rights campaigns.

Charlotte Forten (1837-1914)

A child of a black Philadelphia “dynasty of social activists,”she was sickly, sad – and fearless. By her teens she was publishing poetry and marching against slavery. When the war came, she taught freedmen in Union-occupied South Carolina.

Robert Purvis (1810-1898)

A slaveholder’s mulatto son, Purvis was so light-skinned and rich that people mistook him for a white aristocrat. An Underground Railroad leader, he used his estate near Philadelphia to raise prize-winning poultry – and to hide runaway slaves.

Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882)

Second only to his rival Frederick Douglass for radical oratory, this one-legged New York minister shook the abolitionist ranks with his 1843 call for a slave revolt. He went on to become the first African American to address Congress.

Robert Smalls (1839-1915)

A future black political leader, he and Catto were born weeks apart in South Carolina. But Smalls was born enslaved. Owners taught him to navigate the coastal waters – thus setting the stage for his dramatic flight to freedom at the height of the Civil War.

Martin Delany (1812-1885)

Agitator, editor, explorer, physician, novelist, Union army officer, Delany was a Renaissance man who reveled in his African roots. Frederick Douglass observed, “He stands up so straight that he leans back a little.”
Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

Ebenezer Bassett (1833-1908)

Son of a Connecticut Indian and a slave, he joined black suffrage drives and slipped into classes at all-white Yale. An exacting teacher (“mad as a bug,” a pupil wrote), he was appointed principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth at age 22. He hired Octavius Catto, brought in Frederick Douglass as guest speaker, befriended John Brown — and went on to become America’s first black diplomat.

Daniel A.Payne (1811-1893)

When the state made teaching Negro children illegal, he left South Carolina and went North. He was educated at a seminary and rose to become a bishop in the A.M.E. church, the founder of Wilberforce College and a champion in the fight for abolition.

Angelina Grimke (1805-1879)

Daughter of Charleston slaveholders, she electrified crowds in Boston and Philadelphia simply by speaking – women did not take to the podium and speak to men at the time. Her marriage to abolitionist Theodore Weld in Philadelphia was the antislavery movement’s social event of 1838.

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880)

A tiny Quaker woman with steel for a spine, she was a leader in the struggle for rights for African Americans and women, standing tall on the front lines for more than 50 years.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

From the 1840s on, this escaped slave was the most prominent black civil rights leader in the nation. Rarely at a loss for words, he formed his own newspaper, wrote his autobiography (three times) and lectured on both sides of the Atlantic.  Image courtesy of  Chester County Historical Society

William McMullen (1824-1901)

He was the Democratic boss of South Philadelphia for more than 50 years with a political reach that extended to Washington. The “Squire” was a violent defender of his home turf but, later in life, a respected wise man of city politics.

General Benjamin Butler (1818-1893)

He was the first Union general in the Civil War to recognize that using escaped slaves to help the war effort would aid the North and hurt the South. He later served in Congress and became governor of Massachusetts.

William Still (1821-1902)

If the secret network for smuggling slaves to freedom was known as the Underground Railroad, then Still was among its chief conductors. The secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, he helped more than 600 people become free. He was also among the first black activists to call for integrating Philadelphia’s streetcars.

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Video Introduction

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.