The black struggle for equality

A masterful history, centering on Philadelphia and 19th-century leader Octavius Catto.

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality
in Civil War America
By Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin

Temple University Press. 656 pp. $35


Reviewed by Allen B. Ballard

 


Tasting Freedom is a marvelous historical feast for lovers of Afro-American, Philadelphia, and American history alike.

Centered on the life of Octavius Catto, a mid-19th-century black Philadelphia educator and militant leader, the book reaches far back in time to Catto's grandparents' life in slave- and agrarian-dominated South Carolina and forward to an industrializing Philadelphia in the 1870s.

In the process, authors Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin examine the great political and social upheavals of the period - the abolitionist movement, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and Reconstruction - and recount vividly their impact on individuals. The book's particular magic is that it shows how real people, black and white, rich and poor, were tossed about in the historical currents that flowed through Philadelphia.

Biddle, who won a Pulitzer Prize at The Inquirer as a reporter and is now the paper's Pennsylvania editor, and Dubin, a retired Inquirer reporter and editor, begin with a particularly detailed and nuanced examination of black life in antebellum Charleston, S.C. It is there that O.V. Catto's father, the Rev. William T. Catto, the offspring of freed slaves, grows up in a city that spawned both the aborted Denmark Vesey Revolt of 1822 and the "Brown Society," an organization of mulatto blacks sympathetic to the Southern cause.

Sponsored by a kindly white woman, William Catto receives an education and is ordained a Presbyterian minister, ready to go, with his family - including the young Octavius - as a missionary to Liberia. Instead, influenced in Baltimore by the great African American minister Daniel Payne, Catto heads to Philadelphia, where he becomes active in the antislavery movement and a militant colleague of such abolitionist giants as Henry Highland Garnet, William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Purvis, and Frederick Douglass.

Catto moved to a Philadelphia that in the late 1840s was a hotbed both of abolitionism and of pro-slavery sentiment among the white elite and the newly arrived Irish immigrants. The latter, quite simply, hated free blacks and, as the book reports in great detail, took every opportunity to physically assault them and destroy and torch their institutions, whether churches, schools, or orphanages.

The de facto leader of the anti-black Irish was William "Squire" McMullen, the Democratic boss of the Moyamensing District of South Philadelphia with its gangs of hoodlums, centered in the fire companies. McMullen, a veteran of the Mexican War and later the Civil War, looms large in this book - a sinister shadow cast over the aspirations of the black community.

It's in this pre-Civil War environment that the young Octavius Catto comes to manhood, educated at a pioneering Quaker-sponsored African American school, the "Institute for Colored Youth." The institute was the fountainhead of black learning in Philadelphia, for from it sprang a cadre of classically educated teachers to man the city's segregated schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Upon graduation, Catto becomes a teacher at the school and uses it as a launching pad for a career as a social and political activist in the Civil War era. His accomplishments are chronicled in great detail in the book, from leading a newly formed company of black Philadelphia troops to fight at Gettysburg (their services were rejected by reason of their color), to his successful struggle against streetcar segregation, and his leadership of the postwar fight in Pennsylvania to achieve the ballot for blacks. It was his role in this latter capacity that would lead to his fatal confrontation in 1871 with an Irish assassin, Frank Kelly, a minion of McMullen.

Biddle and Dubin weave a wondrous tapestry of historical lore around the clash between McMullen and Catto.

In and out of the scenes come Douglass and the brave Quaker suffragette and abolitionist Lucretia Mott. We see John Brown meeting in Philadelphia with blacks before his raid, eavesdrop on conversations between him and Douglass, and see the latter spirited out of Philadelphia in the aftermath of the failed raid. And Octavius Catto, quoting the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, delivers a stirring address to a black Philadelphia regiment about to depart to occupy defeated Richmond.

All of this is beautifully portrayed thanks to Biddle and Dubin's diligence as researchers and writers. Their research led them to documents and books from which they excerpted the words of the historical actors, allowing dialogue and skillful portrayal of the characters to propel their work.

The authors render scene after scene in chiseled prose, so that the reader is drawn into the action and feels like a witness to the unfolding drama.

Sometimes, the authors might seem to have cast their historical net too broadly, as when they take the reader off to the assault by black troops of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863, but even then, we see the black Philadelphia connection as Charlotte Forten, granddaughter of the black leader James Forten, talks with Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment's commander, just before the assault and mourns Shaw's death in the aftermath of the battle.

These writers fell in love with their subject - the struggle of black Philadelphians to achieve citizenship and equality - and have treated it accordingly. One would have to search far and wide to find a better-researched and more compellingly readable biography.

 


Allen Ballard, a member of Central High's 189th Class, teaches history at SUNY-Albany and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, "Breaching Jericho's Walls: An African-American Life in Twentieth Century America."