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A 1919 street map of the old Eighth Ward, home to many Harrisburg Blacks until it was razed for an extension of Capitol Park.State historical marker for Underground Railroad activity in Harrisburg's Tanner Alley neighborhood, located at Walnut Street near Fourth.


African American History
in South Central
the 19th Century

Our alma mater : an address delivered at Concert Hall on the occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth, May 10th, 1864 : by Octavius V. Catto.

Afrolumens Commentary

The article below was transcribed from the Philadelphia Press, May 10, 1864, by Doctor Andy Waskie.  It was published in the Philadelphia Press not only to mark the commencement ceremony for the graduates of the Institute for Colored Youth, but to showcase the speechwriting talent of one of the Institute's most vibrant graduates, Octavius Valentine Catto.  Catto's emphasis is on the value of education to African Americans, and he ties that education to the ultimate survival of the nation, following the end of the Civil War (which at the time of this speech was still raging), and particularly of the south's ability to be regenerated as part of the reunited nation.

Catto's argument for racially equitable, national education, providing that "every element of its population be wisely instructed in the advantages of a Republican Government, that every element of its people, mingled though they be, shall have a true and intelligent conception of the allegiance due to the established powers," foreshadows the debate over the appropriate type of education for African Americans that occurred between such leaders as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in the later decades of the century.  Catto's case, in which he advocates higher education and the liberal arts as well as active political participation, aligns more closely with the views of Douglass and DuBois, and stands in contrast with Washington's statement "It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.  Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities."

Indeed, Catto's life shows that he more closely followed Frederick Douglass' advice for Blacks to seek the three boxes--the ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box--in guaranteeing and securing their rights.  Catto was shot to death during a series of violent episodes on election day, October 10, 1871, in Philadelphia.  In reading the speech reproduced below, it is evident that, had he not been murdered at a young age, the name of Octavius V. Catto would surely be as familiar to students of civil rights and American History as those of DuBois, Douglass and Washington.

Andy Waskie is a professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and at Holy Family College, in the Civil War History Institute.  He is a Civil war historian specializing in Philadelphia in the Civil War, and is very active in the Philadelphia Civil War history community.  In October 2001 he gave an Underground Railroad tour of Philadelphia for the General Meade Society and is quite familiar with the historic sites of Philadelphia dealing with Black History.  The Institute for Colored Youth is now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.


submitted by Andy Waskie, Ph.D.


On Wednesday and Thursday last occurred the Twelfth Annual Commencement exercises of the Institute for Colored Youth. The former of these days was occupied with the public examination of classes at the Institute Buildings, 716 and 718 Lombard Street. Among the audience we noticed Rt. Rev. Alonzo Potter, Rev. Dr. William Mann, and other eminent persons. The rooms were crowded throughout the entire day. Classes were examined in Greek, Latin, Mathematics, and the higher English studies, and they generally acquitted themselves creditably. Rev. Dr. Mann created considerable interest in the Greek classes by closely questioning them, and by reciting an ode of Anacreon. These classes were led over the Greek Testament, extracts from Homer, Lucian, and Anacreon. The Latin classes showed familiarity with the Latin of Virgil, Cicero, Sallust, and Horace. The Greek and Latin scanning and parsing were well spoken of by competent judges. The classes in mathematics generally did well. The English analysis and mental arithmetic were excellent; so was the spherical trigonometry. The "Bible Lesson" was superb.

Much interest was manifested in the distribution of prizes. A fund, yielding about one hundred dollars annually, was some years ago, given to the corporation from an unknown source for this purpose. Mr. M.C. Cope, Secretary of the Corporation, distributed the prizes as follows: To Thomas H. Boling and Harriet C. Johnson, each $15, for excellence in mathematics; to John Wesley Cromwell and Mary V. Brown, each $15, for superiority in Greek and Latin; to James L. Smallwood and Elizabeth Handy, each $10, the prize for diligence and good conduct and to Theophilus J. Minton and Margaret A. Masten, each $5, an honorary prize. On Thursday morning the anniversary of the Alumni Association was held in Sansom Street Hall, which was comfortably filled. Mr. B.H. Brewster and other prominent citizens were present. The first address, delivered by John H. Smith, a graduate of the Institute, was on a "Model Statesman." It was very intelligently discussed and well received.

An obituary notice of Mary E. Ayers, written by M.F. Minton, was read next by Caroline R. Le Count, all alumni of the Institute. The composition itself was very creditable, and the reading of it excellent. Then came a political address on the "Aspect of the Times," by John Q. Allen, also a graduate of the Institute. The eloquent young gentleman handled the subject well, and was frequently interrupted by applause.

The Alumni Oration was delivered by E.D. Bassett, the principal of the Institute. His subject was the "Elements of Permanent Governments and Societies," which was discussed at some length, in an able manner. For nearly one hour and a half the undivided attention of the audience was given to this argumentative, humorous, and philosophic oration. The orator said that neither form, territory, population, commerce, wealth, physical well-being, military nor intellectual greatness, either separately or collectively, was sufficient to constitute permanent governments. He brought prominently before the audience examples from history, classic and modern, to establish his position: that while all the aforesaid characteristics of well-ordered society were essential, yet there must be added virtue, liberty, and a high moral and religious development. In the evening occurred the rhetorical and elocutionary exercises of the undergraduates. At an early hour Concert hall was crowded to its utmost capacity. About one-third of the audience were respectable white fellow-citizens. On the platform sat the managers, teachers, alumni, and a portion of the pupils. The orations and essays were, as a whole, highly commendable. One of the young ladies read an essay on John Bright, which was greatly applauded. A little fellow, of about fourteen summers, bearing the suggestive name of Toussaint L'Ouverture Martin, kindled a flame of excitement and applause by reciting a poem of his own composing. There were other meritorious productions, but the interest of the evening centred in an address by Mr. O.V. Catto, who graduated at the Institute in 1858. The scope of the address was to give a history of the Institution, which he did very ably and satisfactorily, indeed. From this address, it appeared that the Institution was incorporated by the Legislature of Pennsylvania in 1842. The members of the Corporation are exclusively members of the Society of Friends. The object aimed at is to afford gratuitously to colored youth, of both sexes, a good High School education, that they may be qualified to act as teachers among their own people, or in other useful capacities. Thirty-six have pursued the full course of study. These are, generally, in useful callings. The average daily attendance at the Institution is about 100. The teachers, which has been entirely given by members of the Society of friends, one of whom gave $13,000, another $10,000, &c. The detail of facts was very ingeniously woven together, and the address itself possessed more than ordinary literary merit.

At the conclusion of the exercises the principal, Mr. E.D. Bassett, presented the diploma to the successful candidates,as follows: James M. Baxter, Jr., Thomas H. Boling, John Wesley Cromwell, James L. Smallwood, Mary V. Brown, Elizabeth Handy, Harriet C.

Philadelphia, May 20, 1864.
Mr. Octavius V. Catto.
Sir: The Association of Alumni of the Institute for Colored Youth, regarding the address delivered by you on the occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute as a document which, not less on account of its literary merits than for the information it contains, is entitled to wide-spread circulation have instructed the undersigned to request a copy for publication.
Very respectfully, yours,
Jacob C. White,
C.A Jennings.

Philadelphia, May 22, 1864.
Miss C.A. Jennings.
The address to which your polite note refers, was not written with a view to publication; but with the hope, that in a printed form, one, at least, of the interest of our Alma Mater may be promoted, a copy is placed at your disposal.

Accept assurances of my deep interest in the Association you so wisely cherish, and believe me,
Yours, truly,
Octavius V. Catto.


Ladies And Gentlemen:
The brief part which we may occupy of this evening's passage will not permit, nor does the intelligence of the audience here assembled require us to enter into any argument for the establishment of the highly important utility of Education. Fortunately, from the enlightenment of the age in which we live, the past achievements of educated minds in the world's history are so plainly evident and immensely valuable, that he who in these halcyon days of intellectual progress invites the attention of an assemblage to the subject of Popular Education, has his cardinal principles as readily accepted as are the axioms and postulates of mathematical science. And even now,--in the midst of an internal revolution,--while our country's energies are being severely taxed to exhibit her resources in those arts sciences which are not in the curriculum of it is wise to pause and remember, that the principles of right, equity, and justice; the very ideas of an improved civilization, more benign and general in its diffusion; the very moral conception of individual and mutual rights of property, contract and government, upon which the people of the North justify their attitude in the present have never been more successfully and generally promulgated than through the teachings of the School. And we venture the belief, that had there been, through the Southern part of this country, a system of education for the masses, irrespective of class or color, exhibiting in its energy one half of the zeal which has, within those States, been exerted to keep the conscience unenlightened and the understanding uninstructed,--we to- night would not be found at the crisis of a civil war. It was a true estimate of the potent influence which education would wield in the politics of the State and in the councils of the Church, that created, as schools began to be multiplied in Europe, a lively interest in those respective bodies for the establishment and perpetuity of educational institutions.

Aristotle, in the spirit of a true philosopher and wise statesman, held, that "the most effective way of preserving a State, is to bring up the citizens in the spirit of the Government; to fashion, and, as it were, cast them in the mould of the Constitution."

Martin Luther, pausing in the midst of the clashing blades of the Reformation,--with the spirit of a zealous churchman,- -urged, that "it is a grave and serious thing, affecting the interest of the Kingdom of Christ, and of all the world, that we apply ourselves to the work of aiding and instructing the young."

The wisdom and value of these opinions are evidenced in the immense debt which those Churches and States that lead the civilized world, owe to their educated men, and by the honorable rivalry which has subsequently existed between the political economist and the religious seer for the direction of the educational systems of their countries. In Prussia, the State gained the advantage; and consequently, there is no country in Europe in which educated men join so numerously in the intelligent administration of the Government.

In England, the Church secured the management of the educational system. And to-night, England in all her glory, the enlightenment of her Christianity, the purity of her morals, the researches of her science, the application of her wisdom, and the spirit of her just laws, is not more indebted to the influence of her Church than is the English Church to the genius and talents of her Christian scholars. In our country this rivalry has been compromised. The State may, for any special purpose, establish such schools as it deems proper. The Church, too, is granted the same privilege. But by far the greater number of schools,--we refer to those under the system called Public,--are established and governed by neither Church nor State, being left entirely to the control of the people. This system, though liable to many abuses, is probably the best yet devised. Besides these public institutions, supported by direct taxation, there is a numerous class founded and cherished by benevolent and philanthropic individuals. Such is the institution which convenes us now, and of which we purpose to give a synoptical history.

The original fund upon which the Institute was founded, came like many other goodly gifts for the amelioration of the colored man's unfortunate condition in this country, from a member of the Society of Friends: a people whose proverbial sympathy and charity for the oppressed, whose consistent opposition to ignorance, intemperance, war, and slavery, have rendered their name inseparable from our heartfelt gratitude and respect. The honor of first conceiving the feasibility and utility of such an institution belongs to Richard Humphreys, of Philadelphia. It was he who left the first fund of ten thousand dollars for its establishment. When the legacy came under the guidance of the Society in 1837, it had amounted to thirteen thousand three hundred and twelve dollars. Up to the time of the second meeting of the Society in 1838, the fund had been increased by individual donations to sixteen thousand two hundred and ninety dollars.

With this sum as a basis, the "Institute for Colored Youth" procured its charter from the Legislature of Pennsylvania in the year 1842. Its primary objects are the education and improvement of colored youths, male and female, "to act as teachers and instructors in the different branches of school learning, or in the mechanic arts and agriculture." The corporation, according to a provision of the charter, consists only of members of the Society of Friends. The government of the affairs and the control of the funds of the Institute are committed to a "Board of Managers," consisting of fifteen members, these managers being members of, and receiving their appointment from the corporation. Shortly after the charter of the Institute had been secured, an additional sum of eighteen thousand, five hundred dollars, which had been devised for educational purposes by another Friend, was granted to the corporation and increased the school fund to thirty-four thousand seven hundred and ninety dollars. This amount was, in turn, increased by subscriptions at various times from members of the Society of Friends until the aggregate school fund reached sixty- four thousand dollars.

At this stage in the history of the fund, the Board of Managers considered it wise to erect buildings for the permanent establishment and location of the Institute: and those on Lombard Street, in which the school is now taught, were erected in 1851.

There are now in the school four departments. One High, and one Preparatory School for each sex. There are six teachers, all colored, employed within the Institute. Three of the teachers are graduates of the Institution. The course of study is similar to that pursued in high schools, including an acquaintance with Latin, Greek, Geometry, and the Trigonometries.

Connected with the Institute are a public reading room and library containing over two thousand volumes, selected with care from the various fields of the literature. The average attendance of pupils is a little above one hundred.

Text-books and all privileges of the Institute are free of charge to those regularly admitted. There have been graduated from the school twenty-seven scholars; which number is to be increased tonight by the presentation of the Diploma to nine others who have completed the required course of study.

Probably, there is no better way of judging the worth of the Institute than by glancing at the positions its graduates hold in the sphere of usefulness to their fellow-men, and the amount of intelligently directed labor they may be performing, to contradict the aspersions which have been cast upon the people with whom they are identified. The first graduate, J.E. Glasgow, Jr., of the class of 1856, entered the University of Edinburgh and pursued his studies with distinguished success. He won a prize in every examination which his class entered, and shortly before his death, which took place on the near approach of his graduating, he bore away the second prize for excellence in Mathematics. This was no light achievement in one of the best Universities in Europe, and among the noblest youths of Scotland.

Two graduates are now pursuing a course at the Penn Medical University in this city, and sixteen others have been engaged in teaching; three of whom are now in public schools in our own city.

One in the seventh section, having raised without aid from any source, a school, large and prosperous enough to be entered among the public schools of her section of the city. The other two are severally in the twelfth and twenty-fourth school sections.

And here we might consistently ask that the liberal spirit and manly example of the Boards in the sections just referred to, may be followed by others to whom the appointment of teachers for colored schools is delegated. It is at least unjust to allow a blind and ignorant prejudice to so far disregard the choice of parents and the will of the colored tax-payers, as to appoint over colored children white teachers, whose intelligence and success, measured by the fruits of their labors, could neither obtain nor secure for them positions which we know would be more congenial to their tastes.

Besides these graduates thus employed in teaching, three are now performing the duties of office clerks in this city; and one other, the pioneer from our ranks, is engaged in the commendable task of instructing the Freed children at Norfolk Virginia.

Thus have we enumerated those who are contributing by their positions to establish the good which was primarily hoped in the beginning of the Institute.

About two years ago, the Managers, constantly regarding the interest and welfare of the school, called the attention of its friends to the advantages which would result from more ample and convenient accommodations, in a location less noisy and surrounded by influences of a more moral tendency. Two members of the Society of Friends at once offered the Board of Managers five thousand dollars apiece, if twenty thousand additional could be raised by the Board. The executors of the late Josiah Dawson, having previously given five thousand dollars to the Institute, promised five thousand more, on condition that the Managers would collect the remaining ten thousand. Both of these generous proposals were accepted, and very shortly after, by private contributions from Friends, the total sum of thirty thousand dollars was secured. This amount, with six thousand for a similar purpose already in the hands of the treasurer, gave the Board a new building fund of thirty-six thousand dollars. Thus we have been brought to the present epoch in our Institute's history.

Of the amount recently raised for the erection of the new buildings, ten thousand dollars have been expended for the purchase of a fine lot, seventy-seven by one hundred and forty feet, on Shippen Street, above Ninth. The site is peculiarly well adapted to the purpose for which the wise choice of the Board selected it. It fronts opposite Ronaldson's Cemetery on one side, and the three other sides being so situated that no buildings may closely approach them,--it possesses all that could be desired for the conveniences of a healthy ventilation. The ample depth of the grounds will allow the main building a situation so far back from Shippen Street as to secure the recitations from the ordinary noise of common thoroughfares, and at the same time provide liberal yards for the erection of the modern appliances for gymnastic exercises. The accommodations for pupils, library and reading room are to be on a more extensive basis than we now enjoy; and the erection of a laboratory for the more successful instruction in practical science, is a part of the plan of the building.

Indeed, we may readily perceive the intention of the Board to make this a first class Institute, to rank its course of instruction among the best of our Normal Schools. For this noble determination on their part, not only the colored people themselves should be grateful and their friends well pleased; but for which every man who admires the spirit of disinterested benevolence and unostentatious charity which their labors exhibit, should rejoice and feel encouraged. But there is a broader view of the Institute's history than that which simply regards its effects upon the individual scholar.

You will pardon us, if we briefly, and as we think very naturally and consistently turn to a few thoughts touching the part which this and other similar institutions are destined to play in determining the future condition of the colored American.

If we were asked to point to one of the most prominent features by which the history of the colored man's struggles in this country shall be defined, we would direct your attention to that brave vessel returning from one of the West India Islands, freighted with native born black citizens of the United States. Let it be recorded to the credit of Mr. Lincoln as the purest act which his administration has thus far performed in justice to the colored American. Let the statesman regard it as the jewelled hand of the Present lifting the dark veil of the golden Future. * Let the nation accept it as the voice of God, declaring that He has made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of this country.

*In April last, four hundred and twenty colored colonists were embarked from Fortress Monroe, under a contract with Messrs. Forbes and Tuckerman, of New York, for the Isle of Avache.

Their sufferings on the voyage, and after they had reached the island, were beyond description. The attention of the President having been called to their condition, he despatched Mr. D. C. Donnohue, of Indiana, to examine the case. On receiving a report of their suffering, the President directed that they be returned to the United States, and the ship Marcia C. was sent to the island, during February, and yesterday returned with three hundred and sixty-eight of the original number. "It is to be hoped that this experience will teach us the folly of attempting to depopulate the country of its valuable labor."-- Philadelphia Press , March 22, 1864.

How much of the course of this terrible revolution remains yet to be run, or how many political evolutions our Government may yet be forced to make, no man can foresee. But it must be the most superficial view, indeed which concludes that any other condition than a total change in the status which the colored man has hitherto had in this country, must of necessity grow out of the conflicting theories of the parties to whose hands this question is at present committed. There must come a change, one now in process of completion, which shall force upon this nation, not so much for the good of the black man, as for its own political and industrial welfare, that course which Providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of both peoples.

Those millions of human beings now scattered through the Southern country must eventually come forth into the sunlight of Freedom; and what a field will there then be opened for the benevolence of the wealthy, and the labors of the educated colored man! Truly, the harvest will be great and the laborers comparatively few.

Those people will need among them Christian missionaries, intelligent teachers and laborers, to direct them to that course of life and in those modes of industry which have always in the world's history contributed so much for peoples similarly situated. It is for the purpose of promoting, as far as possible, the preparation of the colored man for the assumption of these new relations with intelligence and with the knowledge which promises success, that the Institute feels called upon at this time to act with more energy and on a broader scale than has heretofore been required. It is just here that its claims are worthiest of consideration. It is the duty of every man, to the extent of his interest and means, to provide for the immediate improvement of the four or five millions of ignorant and previously dependent laborers who will be thrown upon society in the reorganization of the Union.

It is for the good of the Nation that every element of its population be wisely instructed in the advantages of a Republican Government, that every element of its people, mingled though they be, shall have a true and intelligent conception of the allegiance due to the established powers. Now this cannot be done in any other way than by properly educating the masses in the South; then these States will, indeed, be regenerated and the elements of their population be made ministering agents for the profit of the whole Nation and the lasting security of the Government.

Such we believe to be the philosophy of the relation which the colored man will hold to this country. Then will he be enjoying intelligently the franchises of the citizen, understanding the system and spirit of the laws that govern his country, entering knowingly into the development of her physical resources and the cultivation of his own moral and intellectual gifts. For though born in ignorance and liable to fall in a competition with the intelligent foreigner and migrating Northerner as they go southward,--yet he has within him an aspiration and a capability to rise by faith, labor, and perseverance to a respectable place among his competitors. All that he asks is, that there shall be no unmanly quibbles about intrusting to him any position of honor or profit for which his attainments may fit him. And that which is committed to him as a man , he will perform as no other than a man could perform.

Then when the day of his disabilities shall have passed, his memory will cling with pleasure, and his heart throb deep with gratitude to those men, who, like the managers and donors of this our Alma Mater, will have contributed so vastly to a "consummation so devoutly wished."

Transcribed from the Philadelphia Press of May 10, 1864 by Andy Waskie.

More information:
Biography of Octavius V. Catto:  “Forgotten Black Hero of Philadelphia” by Andy Waskie
• Frederick Douglass' comment regarding the three boxes:  "From the first I saw no chance of bettering the condition of the freedman until he should cease to be merely a freedman and should become a citizen. I insisted that there was no safety for him or for anybody else in America outside the American government; that to guard, protect, and maintain his liberty the freedman should have the ballot; that the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box; that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country; and this was now the word for the hour with me, and the word to which the people of the North willingly listened when I spoke. Hence, regarding as I did the elective franchise as the one great power by which all civil rights are obtained, enjoyed, and maintained under our form of government, and the one without which freedom to any class is delusive if not impossible, I set myself to work with whatever force and energy I possessed to secure this power for the recently-emancipated millions."  from Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Part 2, Chapter V.  Microsoft Encarta Africana, Third Edition.

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