Philadelphia’s ‘Rosa Parks’ gets a headstone 100 years after her death

It was Election Day 1871, the first election since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto went to vote and found himself facing a white mob, who had initiated a riot to suppress the African American vote. He was fatally shot near his home on South Street.

Catto’s story and contributions have not been forgotten.

» READ MORE: A monument at last for Octavius Catto, who changed Philadelphia

His fiancée, Caroline LeCount, a noted educator and civil rights activist in her own right, was part of a long effort to integrate the city’s public transportation operations almost a century before Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat touched off the Montgomery bus boycott and the modern civil rights movement.

LeCount’s story and contributions have faded into obscurity.

However, a small group gathered in Historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale on Saturday to honor her memory and dedicate a tombstone finally marking her grave. The group was gathered by the Rename Taney coalition, which is attempting to change Taney Street, named after Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawn-ney) of the infamous Dred Scott decision, to LeCount Street.

“Caroline LeCount was the Rosa B. Parks of Philadelphia roughly 100 years earlier and we found out there was no tombstone,” said Leo Vacarro, a history teacher at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and an organizer of the coalition. Vacarro said the group raised $2,100 from 38 people through a crowdfunding effort.

» READ MORE: Rename Taney Street after Caroline Le Count | Opinion

LeCount was born free in South Philadelphia in 1846, almost two decades before the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. An educated woman, she graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth, [later renamed Cheyney University] at the top of her class in 1863. She was the city’s first African American woman to pass the teaching examination and in 1868, she became the second Black female to become a principal.

LeCount’s trolley encounter wasn’t random but part of a coordinated civil disobedience effort to desegregate the city’s privately owned mass transportation system, a hotly contested issue. In 1858 Philadelphia’s first horse-drawn streetcar was unveiled. It was segregated. Shortly thereafter the creation of 18 streetcar and suburban railroad companies followed. Eleven of them refused Black riders catering to white passengers who demanded segregated seating.

Black women, seeking to bring supplies and health care to Black Civil War soldiers recuperating at Camp William Penn, the nation’s first training ground for Black troops located in the LaMott area of Cheltenham, would be beaten and thrown off the trolleys.

As Chief Justice Taney had written for the majority in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, Black Americans “had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”

After white passengers in the city voted to continue racial restriction on the trolley cars, Catto went to Harrisburg. The state made the segregated trolley systems illegal in 1867. LeCount tested the new law by getting on a horse-drawn trolley and was promptly ejected.

However, with the copy of the new state law in hand, she found a police officer, swore out a criminal complaint and showed a copy of the law to the magistrate. This time the conductor was arrested and fined.

“When you talk about grassroots movements and how they start, I believe women are behind most grassroots movements,” said William J. Lighter, Jr. , member of the Historic Eden Cemetery board.

Four years later, Catto was murdered and a grieving LeCount vowed to never marry.

She did continue her civil rights and education efforts. LeCount was principal at the segregated Ohio Street School [later renamed the Octavius V. Catto School] for 50 years. She was noted for defending African American teachers against charges of incompetence by noting they had to get higher scores on the teaching exam than their White peers.

LeCount once said in an interview, “To be intelligent is to understand the laws of the land, and the great feature of our laws is that they make no distinction by reason of color.”

When she died in 1923, she was well known but over the next century her name and accomplishments would become lost to history. “I am not surprised,” said Fasaha M. Traylor, coauthor of They Carried Us: The Social Impact of Philadelphia’s Black Women Leaders. “Women were not important and Black women, especially, weren’t important.”

Tyrique Glasgow, a member of the Rename Taney coalition, is the executive director of Young Chances Foundation, a nonprofit community resource group. Glasgow said he was particularly interested in making certain children learn about LeCount’s life.

Her new tombstone now carries this inscription: Compassionate and Fierce Advocate of Education for Black Students and Equality in Public Transit.

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