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Winning the right to vote, at a heavy price

The 15th Amendment gave Negro men the vote, and they cast ballots for the first time in a major Philadelphia election in 1871. They were expected to vote Republican, the party of Lincoln. In this excerpt from "Tasting Freedom," William

This depiction of the 1871 election riot - from "The Trial of Frank Kelly," by Henry H. Griffin (1877) - erred by showing a pistol in Octavius Catto's hand. Catto was shot to death in front of a passing horse-drawn streetcar filled with passengers black and white.
This depiction of the 1871 election riot - from "The Trial of Frank Kelly," by Henry H. Griffin (1877) - erred by showing a pistol in Octavius Catto's hand. Catto was shot to death in front of a passing horse-drawn streetcar filled with passengers black and white.Read more

The 15th Amendment gave Negro men the vote, and they cast ballots for the first time in a major Philadelphia election in 1871. They were expected to vote Republican, the party of Lincoln. In this excerpt from "Tasting Freedom," William

McMullen, a powerful South Philadelphia Democratic ward leader and head of the volunteer Moyamensing Hose

Company, knew he had to stop these

new voters.

Between 7 and 8 on the night before the election, a colored stevedore left his home just below Bainbridge Street. Jacob Gordon headed out to buy, of all things, a pair of shoes. At Eighth and Bainbridge, a hatless white man in dark clothes stepped from the shadows, chased Gordon for a few steps, and shot him twice. Witnesses said the man fired once more at Gordon as he lay in the street.

Within an hour, whites set upon another Negro, a 30-year-old Maryland laborer named Moses Wright, at the same spot. He, too, was shot as he lay in the street. He was expected to survive; Gordon was not. Thomas Fitzgerald's Item newspaper claimed one of Wright's attackers was heard moments earlier saying, "Let's shoot the first nigger that comes along. That will be one vote less."

Octavius Catto and other men from the Banneker Literary Institute gathered two blocks away in Brown's cigar store. William Bolivar came in. The news of the shootings had flown from house to house like an electric current.

McMullen's people had warned of a "free fight" at the polls. The colored men knew better than to expect much from the mayor. Even the publisher Fitzgerald had given speeches decrying "the worst caprices of a ruffianly police force." And witnesses were saying Gordon's attacker was a policeman out of uniform.

Nor could they expect Marines to safeguard them this time. The U.S. marshal had run afoul of the governor by sending soldiers to the polls the year before.

That left the all-colored Fifth Brigade - parade-trained but not accustomed to facing live ammunition or a mob. Catto possessed a rank, a uniform, and a saddle, but he had not yet purchased the requisite sidearm.

Catto looked at the other men and they at him. They had been friends since the Bird School and the pews of First African Presbyterian, Mother Bethel, and St. Thomas. How many battles had they witnessed or waged? The fugitive trials, emancipation, the literary congress, the Franklin Institute, the baseball leagues, the war, the streetcars, the vote.

Now another battle was engulfing them.

The hour grew late. Catto said he was walking home. Directly home - notwithstanding the talk of danger on that short route. Tomorrow would be a long day if the most-respected men showed fear. Catto got a bit theatrical. Bolivar remembered his saying, "I would not stultify my manhood by going to my home in a roundabout way."

Squire of Moyamensing

The sun began climbing the sky at 6:07 a.m. Within 25 minutes, William McMullen was at the polls. They had not opened, but he had much to do.

For more than two decades, he had shinnied up the pole of political power, supporting those above him and holding on to those below. The Squire was still one Democrat who could get things done. But on this voting day he knew he was slipping. The accursed Republicans were pushing him down and the coloreds were adding the grease. The only way he could take care of Moyamensing was not to fall any farther. A shivering early-morning chill kept him awake. Yes, he had much to do.

McMullen commanded respect through political clout, swagger, and fear. He controlled jobs and he sold whiskey. The night before, he saw bartender Frank Kelly. McMullen's biographer suspects a meeting took place during which the Squire liquored up the boys of Moya Hose and went over a plan, as one Democrat had put it, to control "the Nigger vote." Fourth Ward men knew what to do.

Catto had breakfast at 8:30 in his boardinghouse on South Street above Eighth. He was at school about a block away by 9.

He had much to do as well on this Oct. 10. Make sure Negro voters got to the polls and voted Republican. Teach at the boys school and keep his students safe. He had seen the thunderclouds forming the night before.

The Fourth and Fifth Wards were side by side. The trouble began soon after 9 a.m. in the Fifth Ward. Negro throngs were already at the polls, eager for the opportunity to vote for a new mayor. White voters were there, too. All waited on a narrow sidewalk, some to change the elected officials running the city, others to protect them.

More than a few voters had liquor, not coffee, with their breakfast, so it was not just the expectations of the day that were intoxicating. White policemen arrived and created two lines, one white and one Negro, each approaching the poll from a different direction. As the lines met at the election window, threats and maledictions hung in the din accompanying the votes cast.

The pushing became noisy affrays. Policemen, looking to shut the suffrage gate, fought with Negro voters. They bloodied colored men, yanked them out of line and replaced them with whites.

In addition to intimidation and assaults, Democrats used another tried-and-true method of securing a win - "repeaters" voting again and again.

Between 11 and noon, Albert Bickley was working as an Election Day window inspector at the Sixth and Bainbridge polling place in McMullen's ward. He knew Frank Kelly from the neighborhood and was surprised when he came to the window to vote under the name Dunn. He told Kelly the ruse wouldn't work - and quickly ducked when Kelly threw a blackjack at him.

At 1 p.m., Mayor Daniel Fox came to the Fifth Ward polling place on Sixth Street, just below Lombard. "I want one and all of you to aid me in maintaining the peace," he told the crowd. "Let each one try now to evade any show of anger or any disposition to quarrel. . . . If you do this, all will have a chance to get in their votes . . .. Will you help?"

The crowd shouted, "We will," and gave the mayor three cheers. As disgruntled as everyone had been, the scene quieted. Not for long.

The events of the day led to court hearings. Judges sent for the mayor, who defended the fair play of his police. In the early afternoon, Sixth and Lombard erupted once more as the judges heard more complaints: police again forcing Negroes out of line and white voters put in their stead. Fox vowed to replace the police officials at the poll and said he would return to the troubled corner. Minutes after he had gone, a crowd came into the courthouse and begged a judge to stop police from "clubbing and shooting" colored men. Judge Joseph Allison saw a civil emergency evolving before his eyes. One complainant's face was badly bruised. Allison issued arrest warrants for the policemen obstructing the polls.

In the words of a white onlooker, Hiram Jackson, one of 11 people to describe the events at Sixth and Lombard, a policeman "said that no black sons of bitches should vote there without he challenged them." That policeman, Jackson said, was pulling black voters out of line and passing them to another policeman, Officer Gorman.

He saw Gorman strike a black voter on the head and then saw another policeman with a big mustache hit the same man in the face, knocking him to the gutter. The policeman with the mustache shot the fallen man.

Mayor Fox telegraphed a lieutenant named Haggerty, in charge of Third District police. They both went to the courthouse. Judge Allison made it clear to the mayor that police must protect colored voters. White residents had come into court to support the claims of police violence. One of the officers cited was Haggerty.

He denied he had done anything improper or that there had been disturbances at all. The skeptical judges arrested and held him on $10,000 bail. The mayor said nothing. One man told the judges that some police breaking the law at Sixth and Lombard were not in uniform.

Chief of Police St. Clair Mulholland ordered all the officers at the 11th Division polls replaced. Then a new band of frantic voters hastened into the courtroom with news - colored women and children were fleeing a riot that had erupted along Lombard from Sixth to 11th Streets. Police across the city were quickly reassigned to the scene. Judges ordered that the arrest warrants issued earlier for the police at the Lombard poll be ignored. Every man was needed.

They told the mayor to contact the military authorities.

Panic in the streets

Soon the riot was five blocks in one direction, three in the other. A fight on a corner became a brawl along a block. A distinct sound was heard: the popping of pistol balls striking brick. Businesses closed. Colored residents shut their doors and shuttered their windows. Most did not know in which direction to escape, so they stayed in place. And there was murmuring that it was going to get worse when the sun fell. Massacre.

Riots lack order and definition, so eyewitness accounts differ. Yet two things were clear: Panic soaked the streets like Indian summer humidity, and white men, often policemen, chased and shot down Negroes, even pursuing them into their houses. Older colored men had not seen this kind of violence since the 1840s.

Four colored men charged with riotous conduct at Sixth and Lombard went before the court. The judge said from the evidence he had seen, "the riot had been fermented by the police." He freed each man on bail.

In the early afternoon, a gunshot glanced off the side of the head of Frank Kelly. He was bleeding. As many white and colored victims of the riot were doing, he went to Pennsylvania Hospital to have his wound treated. His head was bandaged and he walked out of the hospital that same afternoon.

Residents didn't know how widespread the riot was. The storm spread south to Fitzwater, 24 city blocks in all.

Policemen trying to make arrests found themselves in the moving melee of blacks and whites "jammed in together pell-mell." Housetops were crowded with gawkers hollering and troublemakers pitching rocks and brickbats on the multitude. Balls of shot thwacked against walls. One nearly hit John Fawcett.

Fawcett, a 40-year-old hod carrier from the Frankford neighborhood, found himself running for his life from a man he would later identify as Frank Kelly of Moya Hose.

Standing at Eighth and South Streets after 2 p.m., Fawcett didn't know the name of the white man with the pistol and the bandage around his head when he saw him raise that pistol and fire. The shot missed. Despite a police station at the corner, the bandaged man had not hesitated. Fawcett ran up South to escape him and the crowd running with him. The bandaged man fired again.

Fawcett needed to escape. He saw a cellar door in front of a stove store in the middle of the block not far from Adgers' store. Before he could dive in, a white boy stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fawcett scrambled to his feet, and the bandaged man fired once again.

Fateful encounter

During the 12:30 school recess, Catto left the institute, walked home, and saw the crowds and the fear in people's eyes. The "mobocracy" had returned, as Bolivar would describe it, and colored men were "the object of its spleen."

Catto had lunch and was back in school about 1 p.m. Fearing for their students' safety, he and Fanny Jackson closed the school early. After 2, James Milliken, assistant adjutant of the Fifth Brigade, told Major Catto to arm himself and report to headquarters at Broad and Race Streets at 6 p.m. The unit was now on active duty.

As a major and brigade inspector, he was required to have a sidearm and a sword. The brigade provided him a horse. Catto had the sword.

He went to the bank at 919 Lombard and withdrew $20. Then he walked quickly north - away from the riot - and east to meet his friend Cyrus Miller and purchase a pistol. They met at Third and Walnut and went to a pawnshop, and soon a six-shot revolver was in Catto's possession. He had some cartridges at home. The two men said their good-byes. It was about 3 o'clock.

Catto began walking home.

Rather than going to South Street, he walked only to Lombard. Because of the riot, that was the safer route. He was acting more prudently than he had the night before.

Continuing up Lombard, he turned south at Ninth and walked to South Street. His home at 814 was now a minute away. The street was becoming more crowded.

He passed 825 South and nodded to neighbor Thomas Bolling, who had been his pupil at the Institute for Colored Youth. Bolling saluted his teacher. It was a little past 3:30.

As Catto walked east on South Street, a white man with a bandaged head and a Kossuth hat walked west. No sign of recognition was apparent as they passed each other in front of Annie Howard's house at 822. Just a few more strides.

A moment later, the man with the bandage stopped and turned as if he suddenly realized whom he had just walked by. The damned colored Republican.

The man crouched, pulled out a pistol, and pointed it at Catto. Annie Howard hallooed a warning to the man she knew as Professor: "Look out for that man!"

The clip-clop of a horse drawing a streetcar on South Street did not drown out the sound of the pistol firing.

The first shot struck Catto as he was retreating. He ran injured around the streetcar as it pulled to a stop.

Passengers looked on aghast. The bandaged man proceeded with no haste, as if his task were yet undone.

Catto turned and faced him. The man fired again at close range. And again.

Catto staggered and fell.

Five years before, he had led the efforts to open up the streetcars. Now, as he lay bloodied in the middle of the tracks, Octavius Valentine Catto saw white and colored riders staring at him from a car.