- Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Award-winning Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin populate their dramatic story of the life and premature death of Octavius Catto, United States Colored Troops recruiter and civil rights activist, with heroes and villains, street battles, riots, mayhem and murder. Though an obscure figure today, Catto played a leading role in the struggle for black equality in the era of emancipation; he stood at the center of a lively community of black activists in Philadelphia and beyond.
The authors follow the lives and careers of a number of Catto’s friends and associates—the “band of brothers,” as they called themselves, even though there were prominent women activists among them. Included in this group were William T. Catto (Catto’s father), Frederick Douglass, William Still, and many other members of Philadelphia’s elite black community. And then there were the villains, the opponents of black equality in Philadelphia, best epitomized by “Squire” William McMullen, a Democratic ward boss who used threats and intimidation—murder, even— to swing elections. McMullen and his gang of thugs were responsible for Catto’s murder, as the young man returned home from voting, just as he had “tasted freedom.”
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Octavius Catto grew up in Philadelphia, where he attended the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), the city’s premier black school. In a city known for its racism and southern proclivities, the ICY had become, according to Frederick Douglass, “the ‘heart and hope’ of colored Philadelphia” (289). There Catto and his teachers and classmates began their activist careers, demanding abolition, education, and equal rights. To Catto, education and equal rights were closely interwoven and inseparable; “knowledge is power,” Fanny Jackson, a fellow teacher at the school, liked to say (171).
Discouraged by the state’s reluctance to accept black recruits in the summer of 1863, Catto nonetheless became an active recruiter for the United States Colored Troops and continued teaching at the ICY until his death. After the war, Catto served in the Pennsylvania National Guard, Fifth Brigade, attaining the rank of major. In 1864, Catto helped found the [End Page 459] national Equal Rights League; Pennsylvania’s chapter of the league successfully lobbied for an 1867 state law integrating streetcars and for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869.
Philadelphia’s first two interracial elections highlight the continued need to look more closely at Reconstruction in the North. Although the 1870 election came off with no violence owing to the presence of federal troops, the riot that occurred in 1871 might just have well occurred in postwar Memphis or New Orleans. With the Republican Party squeamish about calling in federal troops and facing mounting threats of violence, city offi cials called the black soldiers of the Fifth Brigade into the contested wards to quiet the disorder. Catto was shot before he could arm himself, by a gunman who was familiar with his activism and who identified him closely with the ascendant Republican Party. In some sense, his death was not in vain, as the Republicans swept to victory in the elections, and Philadelphians briefly closed ranks and mourned the young man as another of the Civil War’s victims. But a few years passed before there was a trial, and though everyone seemed to know who killed Catto, no one was convicted of the crime. Philadelphia’s civil rights community was hit hard by the loss.
Dubin and Biddle tell this story with verve and conviction and based on solid research. The bibliography and extensive endnotes are a testament to the ten years of work that went into the book. A quick mention might be made of a few errors in the text which a close edit might have captured and corrected. The authors locate Harrisburg’s Camp Curtin on the wrong side of the Susquehanna River, for instance, and misstate the rank for Sergeant Major Robert Forten. But these...