'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's horse-drawn streetcars, raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War, and pushed for black voting rights — all before the age of 32. Despite all that, he's barely remembered today. But a new book sheds life on his groundbreaking work.

'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

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'Tasting Freedom'
Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America
By Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
Hardcover, 656 pages
Temple University Press
List Price: $35

Read An Excerpt

A century before the civil rights protests in Selma and Birmingham, a 27-year-old African-American named Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's horse-drawn streetcars.

He did it in 1866 with the help of other prominent activists, including Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass. Catto raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War; he pushed for black voting rights; and he started an all-black baseball team -- all before the age of 32.

And if you visit Octavius Catto's grave at Eden Cemetery, just outside Philadelphia, his epitaph reads: "The Forgotten Hero"

It was that forgotten history that prompted two reporters, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, to dig deeper. They talked to NPR's Guy Raz about their new book, Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.

Early Beginnings

Catto was born in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 22, 1839. His mother, Sarah Isabella Cain, was a descendant of a prominent free mixed-race family. His father had been a slave millwright in South Carolina; after being freed, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and ultimately became a leader in the black church.

The Catto family moved north to Philadelphia when Octavius was about 5. There, he stood out as a star student. He graduated in 1858 as valedictorian of the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University, a historically black college.

Catto wanted to continue his studies, so he left to do postgraduate work and receive private tutoring in Latin and Greek in Washington, D.C.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, he began teaching at his alma mater. By his 20s, he'd already accomplished much: He founded the Banneker Literacy Institute; was inducted into The Franklin Institute, a scientific organization; and was an accomplished baseball player and founder of Pythian Baseball Club. Yet he was frustrated with the discrimination that kept him from accomplishing more.

The Political Arena

At age 24, Catto dove into the world of politics. It was the summer of 1863, just after the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania. Young Octavius responded to a call for emergency troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies with black soldiers and white officers. He also joined with Frederick Douglass to help raise all-black regiments.

Catto would walk through the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia putting up posters that read: "Men of color, to arms to arms, now or never."

"The message of [the poster] is it is now or never for proving that black men can fight bravely and sacrifice for the union," author Murray Dubin says.

Although Catto didn’t see action during the Civil War, he did earn the rank of major for his recruiting efforts.

Desegregating Public Transit

Only a year later, Catto turned his attention to desegregating Philadelphia’s horse-drawn public transit system. Throughout the war, family members and friends were unable to visit black troops who were injured because they were not permitted to ride on streetcars.

"After the Civil War, Catto and a lot of other black men and women decide they must do something about this, so a campaign starts," Dan Biddle says.

The campaign began quietly: People held meetings and wrote letters, but for Catto, Biddle says, that wasn't enough.

"While we can find very few instances of civil disobedience prior to that, somewhere Catto figured out that was the way to do it. And we believe what he did is organized pregnant women, he organized college students, to simply go on the street cars en masse," Biddle says.

Catto's early calls for acts of public defiance were almost unimaginable in that time.

The Vote, And The End

His final cause was voting rights for blacks. With the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, African-Americans were enfranchised, but there were many ways people tried to prevent them from exercising that right.

Catto worked tirelessly to help black people in Philadelphia register to vote for the 1871 election.

Daniel R. Biddle (left) and Murray Dubin are both veteran Philadelphia Inquirer reporters. /Temple University Press hide caption

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/Temple University Press

Daniel R. Biddle (left) and Murray Dubin are both veteran Philadelphia Inquirer reporters.

/Temple University Press

"It [was] anticipated that just about every black man that is going to vote is going to vote Republican," Dubin says. "The white Democrats are well aware of this and felt skunked about how many black men had gotten out to vote in 1870 ... and it was clear that they weren't going to let that happen again."

The violence began the night before the election. Gangs of white thugs went to black neighborhoods to discourage residents from voting and murdered several black men. Catto was also a target.

"You have to understand, Catto was a very well-known guy -- everyone knows who he is. He's a jock, he's a political figure, he speaks publicly. So whites and blacks know who he is. He cannot walk down the street unnoticed," Biddle says.

Catto was walking home, near his front door, and was confronted by Frank Kelly, a Democratic Party operative and associate of the party's boss.

Kelly was armed, Catto was not -- and soon, he was shot dead.

The Legacy

Catto's murder sparked a public outcry, and his funeral was described as "the biggest public funeral in the city perhaps ever at that point, rivaling that of Civil War heroes," Biddle says.

But today, for the most part, Octavius Catto is a forgotten hero.

"I'd love to tell you that Martin Luther King knew about Catto and that's why he did what he did, but I can't prove that," Biddle says. But it was the shoulders of Catto and dozens of other men and women "that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy ... stood on top of."

Excerpt: 'Tasting Freedom'

Tasting Freedom
Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America
By Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
Hardcover, 656 pages
Temple University Press
List Price: $35

October 10, 1871

The young white man had the number 27 tattooed on his hand and a bandage around his head when he began shooting at a colored man named John Fawcett. He missed. Fawcett, a hod carrier from the Philadelphia neighborhood of Frankford, ran up South Street to escape. Joined by a crowd, the bandaged man chased him.

Fawcett saw a cellar door in front of a store in the middle of the block. Before he could dive in, a white boy stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fawcett scrambled to his feet, and the bandaged man fired again.

That same afternoon, about a mile away, another Negro, a schoolteacher with the Roman-sounding name of Octavius Valentine Catto, left a pawnshop on Third Street and began walking home. People on the street knew who he was -- an orator who shared stages with Frederick Douglass, a second baseman on the city's best black baseball team, a teacher at a black school of national renown, and an activist who had fought in the state capital and on the streets for equal rights. He was thirty-two.

It was election day 1871, and the busy South Street area -- the institutional and emotional heart of the black community -- had been rocked by violence since the night before. Was it all the Squire's doing? White policemen and Democrats who answered to him were attacking black voters, and scores had gone to the hospital. Catto had sent his pupils home early. Rather than going directly to his boardinghouse, he chose a safer route -- up Lombard to Ninth Street, near his fiancée's home, and then down to South Street. He lived at 814.

Catto walked with an assured, athletic gait, as if his right to the pavement were guaranteed. Which it was -- but only lately. Memories of slavery haunted every colored home. Generations of men and women had risked their lives to claim the simplest of rights -- to learn in a schoolhouse, serve in the army, ride the railways, cast a ballot. Now those rights were being tested. Catto turned onto South Street at the moment when, in W.E.B. Du Bois's words, Americans of color "were first tasting freedom."

As Catto walked east, the bandaged man was looking for more Negroes to hurt, more Negroes who would not be able to vote that day. He passed Catto nonchalantly, but once he was fi ve steps beyond, the bandaged man turned and crouched. A young girl at 822 South shouted to Catto, "Look out for that man!"

The bandaged man was pulling out his gun.


"A Hundred O. V. Cattos"

Say the words civil rights movement and the conversation veers to Selma and Birmingham and what people remember reading or seeing on small black-and-white televisions -- sit-ins on buses and at lunch counters, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Bull Connor. It was all so very long ago, the 1950s and 1960s.

There are few memories before that.

It is difficult to point to a moment when a movement began or ended or emerged as distinct from another. But the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century was the second or third organized effort by African Americans to be treated as the equals of white persons.

This book is about the first civil rights movement, about its heroes, villains, and battles. Not the Civil War battles at Antietam or Bull Run but the street wars -- pogroms, as the historian Roger Lane says -- of whites against blacks in Washington, New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. The heroes from the 1800s have not had highways named after them, or commendations from a thankful nation. So the stories of Henry Highland

Garnet, Caroline Le Count, and Octavius Valentine Catto are a new way for us to see an old century and an older problem. The nineteenth century had its charismatic racial villains as well -- this time, another "Bull," William "Bull" McMullen, also known as the Squire.

This is a book about the North, about "free" blacks whose freedom was in name only. For the most part, they could not vote, testify, or participate in their community's July 4 celebration. Black people in the mid-nineteenth-century North were threatened not with whippings by slaveholders but with insults, brickbats, torches, and gunfire. They lived in a time when mob violence was so common that the word mobbed was a verb. African Americans were routinely assailed in the public square, in the courts and the legislatures, even in the privacy of their churches, schools, and homes. Their assailants? Everyone -- from the resentful Irish poor to some of the nation's most powerful men.

Octavius Catto, his father, and his friends and allies fought a street battle for equal rights in Northern cities before, during, and after the Civil War. The men and women of Catto's generation presaged the better known civil rights era, sitting down as Rosa Parks did, challenging baseball's color line as Jackie Robinson did, marching for the right to vote as Martin Luther King Jr. did. But they did all these things a century before. Think about that for a moment -- Caroline Le Count did almost the same thing as Rosa Parks did, but her streetcar in 1867 was powered by a horse.

So while ending slavery and bringing fugitive slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad captured the hearts and minds of abolitionists, black and white alike, we write, instead, about the peril and prejudice felt in New York and Boston and Detroit among African Americans. They had libraries, Odd Fellow lodges, choral societies, and ladies clubs but never the freedom to walk down the street safe from white boys attacking them, or, at the very least, spitting out the word Nigger.

And speaking of that vile word: It will appear often in these pages. At the risk of offending readers, we chose to include this and other racist words in an effort to depict accurately the talk of those days. For similar reasons we chose to use Negro and colored, the latter being a term many nineteenth-century African Americans accepted and preferred.

The man at the center of our story, O. V. Catto -- who electrified a biracial audience in 1864 when he said, "There must come a change" -- was a charmer of ladies, a hard-hitting second baseman, a talented teacher, and a Renaissance man of equal rights whom one historian likens to Dr. King and another to George Steinbrenner.

Catto spent too much money on clothes, ate too well at banquets, and reveled in late-summer parties at the New Jersey shore. He wrote poetry and fell in love -- and now we are getting ahead of the story.

Catto, with a group of other African Americans who called themselves a "band of brothers," challenged one injustice after another. His story -- their story -- begins in lesser-known corners of our history, in Charleston, South Carolina, where people of color owned slaves and where teaching blacks to read was a crime punished by whipping, and ends in Philadelphia, where police used billy clubs on Negro voters and where business leaders condoned arson to break up an abolitionist convention within sight of Independence Hall.

This first civil rights movement did not begin or end with Catto. No, he stood on the shoulders of older heroes -- Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott. Catto's generation, in turn, left footsteps for twentieth-century men and women to follow.

As the Catto family descendant Leonard Smith says today, "There were a hundred O. V. Cattos." Their stories need telling.

We begin with the earliest Cattos, and their story starts in Charleston.

Excerpted from Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America by Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. Copyright 2010 by Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. Excerpted by permission of Temple University Press.