150 years later: Civil rights activist Octavius Catto's legacy lives at West Philadelphia church

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "On October 10, 1871, exactly 150 years ago today, Octavius Valentine Catto was assassinated in the city of Philadelphia because of his social activism, his strong push for voter education and voter equality," said Father Martini Shaw.

Father Shaw is 17th in a short list of rectors that have presided over the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Founded in 1792 as "The African Church," it is considered the oldest black church in the city of Philadelphia.

With such a long history, scores of influential parishioners have come through the church's doors. One in particular, Octavius V. Catto, continues to inspire activism among members today.

"He was a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard and on election day, he received word that there was violence breaking out in the city, particularly in the precincts where they knew that a lot of the African American men were going to be voting, and he was killed," said Arthur Sudler, the Director of the Historical Society and Archives at the church. "We believe he was targeted because he was such an effective leader."

Catto was known for coalescing like-minded men of African descent across the east coast of the United States. He fought segregation in the realm of sports, transportation, and voting.

Catto has become the namesake of a scholarship that is expected to reach more than 350 students this fall, according to an announcement made by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney during mass today. Additionally, he has inspired the Octavius V. Catto Voter Education Ministry within the church.

"Every election, we try to get deeply involved in non partisan voter education, civic education," said Gregory J. Allen, a co-chair with the ministry.

For example, their team helps parishioners find out how to obtain and drop off mail-in ballots. A municipal election will be held in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, November 2nd.

Additionally, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is welcoming back guests to their building to worship after more than a year of distancing due to the pandemic. They have only been live streaming services from March 2020 until September 2021.

"Virtual worship cannot and does not replace in-person worship and being able to be in fellowship and communion with one another around the Lord's table," said Father Shaw.

To learn more about the Pennsylvania 2021 election or the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, visit their website.

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