Authors to discuss local civil rights hero

by Len Lear
Posted 2/22/24

Although most Philadelphians probably have never heard of him, Octavius Catto could be described as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th century. 

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Authors to discuss local civil rights hero


Although most Philadelphians probably have never heard of him, Octavius Catto could be described as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th century. 

“No one compares to MLK, but Catto's and Dr. King's lives had striking parallels,” said Daniel R. Biddle, co-author of “Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.” Catto and King “were sons of popular Southern-born Black ministers; both led successful battles, 90 years apart, to integrate public transportation; both fought for the right to vote; both were cut down in their 30s by white assassins' bullets.”

Biddle and co-author Murray Dubin, former colleagues at The Philadelphia Inquirer where they worked as journalists, will speak about Catto at Green Street Monthly Meeting, 45 West School House Lane in Germantown, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 12:30 p.m., after the weekly meeting for worship and hospitality.

The authors were invited after a Meeting member heard an earlier presentation about the book. “It is excellent,” said Eric Corson, of Green Street Meeting, “I hope lots of people will come out to hear them.”

Catto (1839–1871) was a prominent educator, intellectual and civil rights activist. He became principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, founded in 1837 in South Philadelphia, where Catto himself had been educated. It had a rigorous curriculum, including the teaching of Latin and Greek, which every student had to master.

Born a free man in Charleston, S.C., into a prominent mixed-race family, Catto moved north as a boy with his family. After completing his education, he worked as a teacher and became active in civil rights. A spellbinding speaker, Catto also became well known as a top cricket and baseball player in Philadelphia. A Republican, he was shot and killed in election-day violence on Oct. 10, 1871, in South Philadelphia, where ethnic Irish of the Democratic Party, who bitterly opposed Reconstruction and Black suffrage, used violence to keep Black men from voting.

How did the Catto (pronounced CAT-Tow) book come about? Dubin, author of “South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories and the Melrose Diner,” was researching that book at The Library Company when he came across an article about Catto. It “was fascinating,” Dubin told us last week. “I had never heard of him. I thought he deserved to be in my South Philadelphia book, and he is but just in four paragraphs. I knew I was shortchanging him, so I decided to learn more on my own time.

“At the Inquirer, normally our (Biddle and Dubin) paths did not cross, but Dan is a sweet guy, and one day he asked me what I was up to. I told him I was interested in Catto. He said, 'I'm obsessed with him, too.' Dan went on to write a fictional book about the man who murdered Catto. We had never worked together before, but then we did research together in 2001 and 2002.”

Biddle and Dubin were surprised to find out that the Catto family members were not enslaved – that their owner had freed either them or their parents or grandparents. Even in the pre-Civil War South, not every Black person was enslaved. 

“We went to Charleston,” Dubin said, “and were ecstatic to find out some things about Catto's family. We thought the writing would take one to two years, but it took seven to 10 years. Catto was part of a civil rights movement all over the U.S. and even much of Europe. Most people do not know about any other civil rights leaders in the 1800s except Frederick Douglass, but we learned that there were many extraordinary leaders.”

Biddle discovered that Catto's home state, South Carolina, had criminalized the act of educating Black people before Catto was born, and yet teachers and alumni of his Philadelphia school, the Institute for Colored Youth, “made themselves a powerful force for change. The school sent more teachers South to teach newly freed people than any other school or college in the country,” said Biddle, who won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1987. 

That school morphed into Cheyney University. There is a wonderful statue of Octavius Catto now on the south side of City Hall. 

“His was the first statue in Philadelphia of a named African American,” Dubin said. “Former Mayor Kenney was responsible for it. Kenney is an Irish guy from South Philly, just like the man who killed Catto. Maybe the former mayor felt this was some kind of penance.”

For more information about “Tasting Freedom,” visit For more information about the Feb. 25 event, visit Len Lear can be reached at