O. V. Catto Education Portal: Exploring the American Civil Rights Story

photo by Laura Blanchard, 2008

Octavius Valentine Catto was a 19th century African American civil rights activist, whose short life spanned the thirty-one years preceding the Civil War and the early part of Reconstruction America. These were pivotal years in our nation's history, testing what equality and citizenship should really mean. Historian Eric Foner calls this time America's Second Founding. The years stand as an important shift in the the meaning of the U. S. Constitution. This shift was not just in the waysway blacks would be defined by federal and state laws, claim their citizenship rights and seek opportunity. It was a fundamental shift in defining the meaning of citizenship and equality for everyone that we still are grappling with today. Catto was among the leaders that made this shift happen.

The recent resurrection Catto's story in Philadelphia brings to light the frequently neglected connection between America's civil rights stories in the 19th, 20th and current century. These stories are often viewed as separate occurrences, not broadly within a long timeline.

This education portal seeks to provide educators, students and others resources, tools and frameworks for exploring the long arch of American civil rights history and for understanding America's Second Founding. The materials here support learning across the curriculum in Social Studies, History, Language Arts and English as a Second Language. The specific intent is to engage students from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, school settings and language proficiencies with the American civil rights story, using Catto's era as the starting point and carrying through to modern times.

Thomas Kelly 1870 print, The Meaning of the 15th Amendment, Library of Congress

Catto has been called "A Forgotten Hero." His story has been "forgotten" in the broader public memory, although during his time he was among a very elite tier of highly visible 19th century national civil rights leaders. His story was also never "forgotten" within certain corridors of America's African American communities and it is through these and the recent book by Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin that Catto's story is becoming more widely known today.

This education initiative is an effort by the Catto Memorial Fund to improve learning about Catto, his times and its place today in our national narrative. The Memorial Fund has enabled the erection of a Catto public art memorial in 2017 on the apron of Philadelphia City Hall. This monument is the first Philadelphia memorial to an individual African American on public land and will serve as an education tool, as well. For centuries, City Hall has been a place to honor important Philadelphia civic leaders. This monument is the first to also serve as a centerpiece for civic learning.

City Hall Catto Memorial

This education portal brings together a special education publication, Octavius V. Catto: Remembering the Forgotten Hero, by Amy Cohen, and an array of cultural and education supplemental resources provided by Independence Hall Association, the National Constitution Center, the National Archives' National Education Division, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, History Making Productions, the Philadelphia History Museum, the Heritage Center of Union League, the Charles L. Blockson Collection at Temple University, and the School District of Philadelphia, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Office.

Philadelphia offers an important lens for studying America's national heritage. In addition to being the birth place of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of the national government, Philadelphia in the 19th century was a prominent urban center that had strong Southern sentiments and alliances, was a hot bed of ethnic immigrant and nativist tensions, and at the same time was an important abolition center and home to such national leaders as Lucretia Mott, Robert Purvis, and William Still. Within the city resided the largest free black community above the Mason Dixon Line, as well as growing immigrant populations from many countries and cultures and rising new industrial and civic leaders. The racial, cultural, religious, social and political tensions of 19th century Philadelphia reflect America's continuing challenges today and provide a framework for comparative study and civics learning. The overall education initiative is specifically structured to provide educators with ways to improve their classroom and school practices in teaching and dealing with the issues and topics that America's civil rights history presents.