Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for
Equality in Civil War America

By Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin

(January 2011 Civil War News - Online Exclusive)

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Illustrated, notes, index, 616 pp., 2010. Temple University Press, www.temple.edu/tempress, $35.

This book is an encyclopedic epic that both rescues the little-known civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto from relative anonymity and is a seminal study of a range of related topics.

This compelling, well-written work chronicles social and political life in America from the antebellum period into the Reconstruction era while focusing on the fascinating, albeit brief, career of Octavius Catto.

Born in Charleston, S.C., in 1839 to free black parents, the Rev. William Catto and his wife Sarah, Octavius was one of nine children. The majority of Tasting Freedom’s setting takes place in Philadelphia, where Octavius lived until his untimely death.

He was educated and later taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. Not only was he a prominent civil rights activist, he was a coach/player for the Pythian baseball team.

In addition, he was actively involved in the movement to integrate Philadelphia’s streetcar system. He was murdered during a demonstration in 1871 at the age of 32.

While researching for another book in 1993, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Murray Dubin uncovered references to Catto’s career. He enlisted fellow journalist and InquirerPennsylvania editor Daniel R. Biddle, a Pulitzer-Prize recipient, to co-author a biographical study of Catto and 19th-century America.

In an interview the authors described their purpose:

“We are newspaper guys and what we care about are 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.”

A great yarn indeed! Meticulously researched, this book reveals the tapestry of the precursor of the great civil rights movement of the 20th century.

This is an entertaining and informative story that uses many previously untapped first-hand accounts. More than a biography of Catto, Tasting Freedom is a sweeping chronicle of the 19th-century civil rights movement and its leaders.

Although its subtitleis Battle for Equality in Civil War America, this book encompasses a greater variety of related subjects. Using Catto as the focal point, the authors provide a penetrating portrait of the hardships of life for blacks in Northern states during the 1840s to 1870s. Nineteenth-century Philadelphia serves as a case study to illuminate the presence of racism in Northern states during this period.

A full chapter is devoted to racial discord between Irish immigrants and blacks in urban areas. Another fascinating chapter reflects on a history of baseball in the 19th century since Catto was a star of the Pythian baseball team, which participated in the first black-white baseball game on Sept. 4, 1869.

Tasting Freedom is highly recommended for anyone interested in 19th-century American life, especially because of its detailed account of the little-known civil rights movement. Catto and his generation laid the foundation for the 1960s movement through advances in education, integration of public transportation in Philadelphia and involvement of blacks in baseball.

This tomeis more than a biography; it is social and political history at its best. As the authors noted, combining the biographical study of Catto with the story of Northern racism during the 19th century makes a great yarn — and good history.     

Reviewer: Michael Russert

Michael Russert, a member of the North Shore Round Table of Long Island and the Company of Military Historians, has a MALS plus 60 hours in American Studies. He is Coordinator of The New York State Veteran Oral History Program.