Sunday, September 22, 2013

Octavius V. Catto African-American Elks Lodge

Octavius V. Catto African-American Elks Lodge banner, 1903. Maker unknown; velvet, gold embroidery, fringe and wood. Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent

The banner commemorates the 1903 opening of the Octavius V. Catto Lodge, the Philadelphia home of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW), also known as the Black Elks. Fraternal organizations such as the Elks were increasingly common in the late nineteenth century, though such groups often established distinct chapters segregated by race.

The Black Elks, formed in Cincinnati in 1898 by Arthur Riggs and B.F. Howard, were a controversial offshoot of the exclusively white Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks (BPOE). After failing to gain acceptance into the BPOE, Arthur Riggs sought legal counsel and filed for copyright of the still unpatented BPOE meeting ritual. Although violent threats forced Riggs to relocate to Springfield, Ohio under an assumed name, the Black Elks endured under Howard and local chapters throughout the United States began to emerge.

Philadelphia's chapter of the Black Elks is one such example, and Octavius Catto (1839-1871) proved a fitting namesake for the lodge. A prominent educator and activist during and after the Civil War, Catto is reflective of nineteenth century Philadelphia's dynamic and vibrant black middle class. Born in South Carolina in 1839, Catto and his family settled in Philadelphia around 1850. He studied at the highly-regarded Institute for Colored Youth and eventually served as educator and assistant to the principal upon graduating in 1858.

A staunch advocate of equal rights among men, Catto became increasingly involved in political action, both formal and informal. During the Civil War, he and Frederick Douglass were instrumental in recruiting black volunteer regiments in and around Philadelphia, many of whom served in battle. In 1865 he staged a demonstration of civil disobedience against Philadelphia streetcar companies, which did not board black men and women. Having entered a streetcar, Catto quietly refused to get off when urged to by the conductor.

When the conductor eventually chose to derail the car, Catto remained seated in silence well after the car had emptied. The event received national attention. Threats of legal action were made against Catto, but he ultimately escaped reprimand. In 1866, with his friend Jacob C. White, Catto formed the Pythians baseball club. The Pythians club served three functions: first, it provided a social recreational network for members of the black community, many of whom knew each other from their days at the Institute for Colored Youth; second, it served as a political stage to demonstrate African Americans' love and mastery of an increasingly popular and distinctly American game; and third, it provided a means to negotiate acceptance into white administrative organizations such as the Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players (the Pythians were ultimately denied acceptance). As player-manger and skilled shortstop, Catto was well recognized on and off the field. Catto further lobbied for black citizenship as a supporter of the Republican Party. He served as secretary in the Republican-organized Pennsylvania Equal Rights League.

His political involvement brought his young and accomplished life to a sad, untimely end. In 1871, a year removed from Pennsylvania's adoption of the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to black males, racial tensions ran high in the city of Philadelphia. Newly enfranchised black citizens, who almost exclusively supported Republican candidates, posed a significant threat to Democratic leaders, who relied heavily on white support. On Election Day, October 10, 1871, rioters sought to suppress the black vote, largely by violent means. Catto himself was confronted on the street and shot to death by Frank Kelly, likely an act of political murder motivated by Catto's civil rights activism. Kelly stood trial in 1877 but escaped conviction. Catto's death was mourned by the city, by white and black alike. His legacy lived on in the benevolent work of the Elks and black fraternal organizations throughout the region.

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