In this Q&A, Temple University authors Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin discuss Octavius Catto, the subject of their new book Tasting Freedom.
Q: Octavius Catto was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement in the Civil War era. Where did you hear about him, why is he so little known, and what prompted you to write his life and times?
A: Murray discovered him in 1993 while doing research for a book he was writing on the history of South Philadelphia. Dan heard a historian talking on the radio about black life in the city in the 19th century and discussing Catto. Catto is little known because he died so young, before he had a chance to become prominent on the national scene. We both thought his life was extraordinary.
Q: How and where did you do your research? What surprises did you discover?
A: We did our research in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina and New Jersey in churches, college reading rooms, and the Library of Congress. We scoured diaries, letters, newspapers, census records, box scores and song sheets in an effort that took more than seven years. We didn’t realize until more than a year into the work that there was a civil rights movement in the 19th century.
Q: Tasting Freedom provides an extensive history of the Civil War era and how African Americans faced racism on the baseball field, on streetcars, as voters, in the military etc. How did Catto and his “band of brothers” combat this discrimination?
A: He and his contemporaries in the North needed to fight for many rights that whites took for granted. Their weapons were their organizing skills to mold public opinion and educate whites, exemplary public behavior, bravery on the Civil War battlefield and physical courage in the face of threats and bodily harm to integrate the streetcars.
Q: Catto taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. He was very instrumental in educating free slaves and helping them get established. His famous speech at a graduation contains the phrase, “There Must Come a Change!” It started as a history of the school and ended with a call for equal rights. It had an immediate impact and was reprinted and circulated widely. How far-reaching was his speech?
A: The Institute for Colored Youth sent more teachers South to teach freed slaves and their children than any other school in the nation. It’s clear that I.C.Y. students were listening to Catto.
Q: Catto’s story intersects with historical figures such as the “feminist”/abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and famous orators like Frederick Douglass, with whom he shared stages. How did Catto establish himself in Philadelphia society and make the social/political connections he did?
A: Catto was a prominent educator who ran the boys school at the Institute for Colored Youth, the best school for black youth in the city, and arguably the best school for youth of any color. That elevated him to an important role in the community. He was a charismatic speaker who was the son of a well-known clergyman. Active in civil rights activities in his 20s, he fought the same battles that Douglass and Mott were fighting. And he was a rising Republican leader in the black community.
Q: Tasting Freedom has a terrific chapter about baseball and Catto’s experiences with the Pythians. Interracial matches were played unofficially. Catto’s team played in the first game between white and black clubs. Did he have the respect of whites, or did he have a negative reputation?
A: The Philadelphia Athletics, the top white team in the city in the 1860s, permitted the Pythians to play on the Athletics’ field and were supporters of Catto’s effort to compete against white teams. It was not uncommon to see white ballplayers in the stands watching Pythian games.
Q. The chapter on the battle for streetcars shows Catto’s strength as an agitator. He tried to change laws. What do you think he could have accomplished had his life not been cut short?
A: That’s the question we wish we could answer. But we’ll try: We believe he would run for public office locally and won, and then would have sought higher office in the state. We also believe he might have received an appointment by the President to represent the United States overseas in a diplomatic position. And we think he may have left Philadelphia at some point to run his own school, perhaps in the South.
Q: You provide detailed descriptions of Catto’s enemies and the reaction to his death and its aftermath. How great was the riot that occurred?
Catto was shot to death in an 1871 election-day riot in Philadelphia that was one of the worst days of violence that the city had ever seen. We described the riot in the book as “five blocks in one direction and three in the other.” Scores of black men were shot and beaten and an untold number were scared away from the polls.
Q: You end Tasting Freedom with an epilogue on Catto’s legacy. How do you measure Catto’s contribution to history?
A: Influence is difficult to measure. We know that W.E.B. Du Bois knew about Catto because he wrote about him in “The Philadelphia Negro.” And we know that black leaders in the early 20th century read Du Bois. So it makes sense to say that Catto’s life was known to the black men and women who began the NAACP and who led the Harlem Renaissance. We also know students that Catto taught became civil rights leaders in the South and went on to teach black students across the nation.
Q: So what are two white guys doing writing about African American history?
A: We are newspaper guys and what we care about our good stories. The story of Catto’s life is a great story that no one has ever told. Even more important is the story of the civil rights movement in the 19th century, which has been little told. We thought that putting the two together would be a great yarn.
To watch a video of authors Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin discuss Tasting Freedom, click HERE.