Updated: Thursday, March 8, 2018, 5:47 AM
Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin’s book Tasting Freedom, about Philadelphia black activist Octavius V. Catto, gained new traction when Catto’s statue went up next to City Hall in September. Now, they’re looking for a co-author – specifically, an African American children’s book author – for a kid-focused version of their best seller.
Temple University Press issued a paperback edition of the book in fall 2017 to coincide with the statue, which was unveiled after intense lobbying by newly elected Mayor Kenney. But a kid’s book would bring in a new audience.
“My late wife has already drafted some good chapters, and the goal is to complete the children’s version of the book with an African American writer of young adult fiction,” Biddle said.
“It would speak to children of color if a black writer takes this on. It would be great to have that voice.”
(Interested parties should contact Biddle and Dubin through their website tastingfreedombook.com)
There are other efforts underway to bring Catto to young people. A mural of Catto on the 1400 block of Catherine Street will memorialize his story.
At speaking events, the first question these two friends and retired newspaper reporters always bring up: Why did two white guys write this book?
“We actually pose that question all the time at speaking events, because people are too polite to ask,” said Dubin. Colleagues for many years, they discovered each separately maintained an obsession with Catto while they were reporters at the Inquirer.
“We stumbled on Catto separately, and ultimately split the work into six parts each,” said Dubin. They give talks all over Greater Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware, especially since the statue has revived interest in their book.
Were either of the authors’ families slave-owners? Audience members are always afraid to ask.
“Yes for the Biddles,” said Biddle. “No for me,” said Dubin. But in the complications of history, one of Catto’s own ancestors owned slaves.
“Catto’s mother’s family were free colored men and slave owners. Many times I have to inform our audience, particularly students, that there were black slave owners in Catto’s day.”
Octavius Valentine Catto was an orator who shared stages with fellow activist Frederick Douglass, and was a second baseman on Philadelphia’s best black baseball team, a teacher at the city’s finest black school, and a civil rights crusader who fought in Harrisburg and on Philadelphia’s streets for equal rights. With his racially charged murder, the nation lost a civil rights pioneer who risked his life a century before Selma and Birmingham.
“We’re also asked a lot about the connection between Catto’s fight for civil rights, particularly his fight to integrate Philadelphia’s streetcars, and Martin Luther King. How did Catto get left out of all the history books?” Dubin said.
The answers aren’t simple.
Black author W.E.B. DuBois wrote The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study in 1899 about housing and political rights, with a section on Catto noting the importance of his life, writing that “Catto’s death came when Americans of color were first tasting freedom.” Using women and children to integrate streetcars – and, a century later, buses – Catto’s methods “echo down through to MLK,” Biddle said.
“And many African American leaders read DuBois, so they must have heard of Catto,” said Dubin.
But why have so few white Americans heard of Catto, born Feb. 22, 1839?
“After the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments gave African American men equality by law, the pendulum swung back, and rights began rolling backwards. Catto was forgotten,” Biddle said.
What about ties to the Black Lives Matter movement?
“Everything Catto and his young friends did was about black lives mattering. Catto grew up in Philly, which was then America’s largest city for African Americans, and yet, free blacks were still being kidnapped and sent south. It happened all the time. Other cities, too, had their version of Catto in the civil rights movements in the 1800s, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh.”