Octavius Catto was murdered during election day, 1871, amid violence aimed at intimidating black voters in Philadelphia.

by Howard A. Myrick

In 1688, Germantown Township (and Chestnut Hill) were the gateways to nearby farm lands. In that year, at 5109 Germantown Avenue, Francis Daniel Pastorius and three fellow-Quakers signed the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, the first protest against African American slavery written and published by an American religious group.

These German-towners, led by Pastorius, recognized the sin of being forced to work against ones’ will and argued that “every human regardless of belief, color, or ethnicity, has rights that should not be violated.” In so enunciating their beliefs, their petition can be regarded as the First Human Rights Petition in the slave-holding colonies.

At this present instance in celebrating Black American History month, it would serve us (especially our youth) well to visit and reflect on the historical marker at 5109 Germantown Avenue bearing these words concerning slavery and the sinful treatment of its victims:

“[I]s there any that would be done or handled at this matter…we shall do to all men, like as we will be done to ourselves…making no difference of what generation, descent, or color they are…”

At the present moment in American history when civic activism and personal and collective courage are so much needed, the actions of these German-towners are so deserving of recognition and honor.

With no intent to subtract from the resilience effort and tenacity of African Americans who have excelled in subsequent years, it is not unwarranted to suggest that the commitment and courage of Germantown Quakers and Mennonites contributed to the ascendancy of a notable and large number of distinguished African American Philadelphians and their success in various fields, including civil and human rights. 

To name just a few:

Crystal Bird Fauset, the first African American woman elected to a State legislature in 1938, representing Philidelphia’s 18th District.

Octavius Catto, the 19th century educator and civil rights activist – a martyr to racism who was shot and killed in election day violence in Philadelphia, October 1871.

Julian Francis Abele, the architect credited with designing the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia and historic buildings at Harvard and Duke universities.

Caroline Lecount, Philadelphia’s Rosa Parks, a teacher and civil rights activist, whose activism and bravery resulted in the repeal of Philadelphia’s racial discrimination against street car riders 100 years before Parks sparked a bus boycott.

Ruth Wright Hayre, Philadelphia’s first African American high school teacher, principal, and the first female heard of the Philadelphia School Board.

There are others, comprising a list too long for publication herein. 

So let’s celebrate African American History Month with these words: “We should not want to think of America as a ‘melting pot,’ but as a great interracial laboratory where Americans can really begin to build the thing which the rest of the world feels they stand for…that is real democracy.” [Crystal Bird Fauset, at the l940 Woman’s Centennial Congress, NYC].

Howard A. Myrick, Ph.D.  is Professor Emeritus, Temple University, Klein College of Media and Communication.