A Charleston native who moved away from the city in 1848 and whose pioneering activism was largely forgotten until this century has received a monumental honor in Philadelphia.
Octavius Valentine Catto was an educator, a fine baseball player and a civil rights activist who successfully pushed for desegregating Philadelphia's horse-drawn trolley cars almost a century before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus.
Earlier this week, Catto's statue was unveiled outside Philadelphia City Hall — that city's first public sculpture honoring an African-American.
His story had been lost to history until recently. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, then a city councilman, learned of Catto and began pushing for a citywide effort to memorialize him about 15 years ago.
That effort received a boost from the 2010 publication, "Tasting Freedom, Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America."
Murray Dubin, a co-author of that history, said Catto began speaking out at age 16, just a few years after his family moved from Charleston to Baltimore and then eventually to Philadelphia.
Catto pushed for better education for black children and for equal voting rights, a cause that ultimately led to his violent death in 1871. On Election Day that year, Catto was shot during a citywide effort to suppress black turnout. He was 32.
It was the first election where the city's African-American population was allowed to vote, thanks to the 15th Amendment, which Catto helped push Pennsylvania to ratify.
Tensions were high that day. Catto was on his way home to get his National Guard uniform and sword when he was shot and killed, Dubin said. The suspected shooter, Frank Kelly, stood trial for the crime several years later but was found not guilty by an all-white jury.
Knowledge of Catto's unique life eventually faded from Philadelphia — and became even more distant in his native city.
The first chapter of "Tasting Freedom" is entitled, "Charleston," and it covers Catto's origins. His parents William Catto and Sarah Isabella Cain were part of Charleston's small, free black community. His mother was part of Charleston's prominent DeReef family.
The Cattos lived at 7 Wall St. in a Charleston home that's long gone. The family later moved a few blocks north, to Henrietta Street, Dubin said. Catto's father William was a well-regarded millwright at rice plantations, and he also joined Second Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Thomas Smyth of Second Presbyterian was impressed with William Catto and once described him as a "free coloured man ... (who) presented himself and after a very full and satisfactoiry (sic) examination was admitted a member & appointed a Leader with Mr. Howard of a Free Coloured class."
Catto's mother died of natural causes in 1845, when Octavius was only 6. His father moved the family three years later.
Smyth and others supported Catto and trained him as a clergyman who would minister to residents of Liberia, Dubin said. "Getting out of Charleston was Catto's idea. This was a way it could happen," he added. "Smyth was his prime sponsor."
William Catto ultimately opted against becoming a missionary to Africa and instead settled his family in Philadelphia. He worked in churches across the north and was profiled in the newspaper of Frederick Douglas, the nation's most prominent civil rights leader of his day.
Sculptor Branly Cadet's monument features a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of Octavius Catto striding toward a ballot box and five pillars marking his contributions as an educator, athlete and National Guard major.
“I think the breadth of his civic activism, I know this is trite, but it’s awe-inspiring," Dubin said. "He tried and failed to integrate the Literacy Society. He tired and succeeded to be the first black man to get admitted in Franklin Institute," the science and education museum in Philadelphia.
“He does set up and played in the first black-white baseball game in America in 1869,” Dubin added. "Again, it’s trite but it’s evidence from 146 years ago that one man can make a difference."
Philadelphia's rediscovery of Catto may also raise his profile here. Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston history professor who wrote a book about black 19th century African-Americans in Charleston, said he has heard of Octavius Catto but really does not know his story.
The same goes for Alphonso Brown, a tour guide who focuses on the city’s African-American heritage. “I know of him (Catto), but I don’t say much about him because he was just born here," Brown said. "Otherwise, he moved up north and that’s about it.”
Dan Biddle, who co-authored "Tasting Freedom," said William Catto led a remarkable life in Charleston, but it's not surprising little is known about him here.
“Being a free person of color in Charleston in the early 19th century, you know to the extent William Catto made his mark, it’s little wonder that it’s not widely known,” he said.
Mayor Kenney said he hopes Philadelphia students one day will know as much about Octavius Catto as they do about Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.
“We know more about Rocky — who’s not even a real person — than we know about Octavius, which says a lot,” Kenney said.
Dubin agreed, saying when he first learned of Catto, his first thoughts were, "Why didn’t I know about this guy? Why wasn’t I taught about him in school or college? I was embarrassed and I was also sort of angry.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.