By Raymond Simon
ABOVE PHOTO: Image of Octavius Catto (circa 1870) provided by Temple University Press.
Daniel Biddle was trying to explain why he and co-author, Murray Dubin, had just written a 632-page book about Octavius Valentine Catto, an obscure
African-American figure from 19th century Philadelphia.
Speaking firmly and with passion, Biddle said: “Catto broke baseball’s color line 80 years before Jackie Robinson; he integrated streetcars 90 years
before Rosa Parks; and he was fighting for voter rights 100 years before Selma and Birmingham. Yet most Americans have never heard of him.”
Biddle and Dubin hope to rectify that ignorance with their new book, “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War
Temple University Press officially published the book on Wednesday, September 22. To mark the event, the authors spoke that evening at the Free Library
of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch, located at 1901 Vine Street. Roughly 225 people turned out to hear them discuss the book.
The two may already be familiar to readers from their bylines in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Biddle is currently the newspaper’s Pennsylvania editor,
and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his investigative reporting on the Philadelphia court system. Likewise, Dubin spent 34 years in the newsroom,
working as both a reporter and an editor. He is also the author of “South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories and the Melrose Diner.”
Throughout the course of the evening the two men took turns speaking. Dubin began by describing what life was like for African-Americans in early 19th
century Philadelphia. Although free and living in the North, Philadelphia’s African-Americans were constantly subject to petty harassment and even
As Dubin clarified during the question-and-answer period, “Philadelphia was not a center of giving blacks full rights. But I don’t know of any city in
the North that was doing anything we should be proud of.”
Dubin made it clear that Catto, who is ostensibly the focus of the book, is also a means for the authors to tell a larger and more important story,
what they referred to as the “first Civil Rights Movement.”
What Biddle and Dubin mean by that phrase is the struggle of all the forgotten men and women, black and white, who worked to bring a full measure of
liberty, equality, and civil rights, to African-Americans before, during, and immediately after the Civil War.
To most educated Americans, Civil Rights conjures images from the 1950s and 1960s. And many people have at least heard of Frederick Douglass. But when
Biddle asked for a show of hands from those who recognized the names of people who fought for Civil Rights long before Martin Luther King Jr., people
like Martin Delany and Henry Highland Garnet, only five people at most responded.
Biddle and Dubin acknowledged that they too were woefully unaware of this history, but they also knew that they were on to something.
“We’re reporters and reporters live and breathe for a good story,” Biddle said. “You know you’ve got a great story if no one knows it. But it’s best if
it’s a story that makes a difference.”
According to the authors’ website, tastingfreedombook.com, Dubin first learned about Catto in 1993. He was researching his book on South Philadelphia,
when a helpful archivist at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Phil Lapsansky, suggested that he peruse a scholarly article on Catto. A few years
later, Biddle was driving in his car listening to the radio when he happened to hear Roger Lane, now an emeritus professor of history at Haverford
College, speaking about this largely forgotten figure.
Sometime in 2000, the two men realized that they both knew of and were fascinated by Catto’s life, so they set about investigating him further. Biddle
recounted how he began plugging Catto’s name into Google, hoping that records or an amateur genealogist would turn up more information.
Fortunately, Leonard Garnet Smith, a descendant of Catto’s, was also searching online for information about the man whose memory had been kept alive
within the family. The three met and, with Smith’s blessing and support, the intrepid reporters plunged further into their research.
What they unearthed is a Philadelphia that will be unfamiliar to most readers: the city was home to the Institute for Colored Youth, where Catto
taught. It also fielded an all-black baseball team, the Philadelphia Pythians, for whom he played second base. It was also a city whose Quaker roots
made some responsive to abolition but whose industrialists profited from business with southern landowners.
Perhaps Catto’s ancestor, Leonard Smith, put it best. The 66-year-old retiree who traveled from his home in Virginia for the event said, “I want to
thank you on behalf of my family. This story is not just about one man, Octavius Catto. It’s also about democracy and freedom and America.”
The authors’ next appearance is Wednesday, October 6 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.