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Early Civil Rights Activist Octavius Catto Gets A Statue


With all the talk of statues coming down in this country, here's a story about one that will go up. In Philadelphia, next month, the city will put up a monument to Octavius Catto. Mr. Catto was an early civil rights activist who organized black regiments in the Civil War. He worked to desegregate the city's horse-drawn streetcars. He fought for voting rights and started an all-black baseball team. Joining us from member station WBUR in Boston is Dan Biddle. He's co-author with Murray Dubin of "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America." Thanks so much for being with us.

DAN BIDDLE: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And why is it I've never heard of Octavius Catto? What an extraordinary man.

BIDDLE: Well, that's a great question. I almost felt embarrassed to have never learned about this man when I was a history major in college. And we both came to realize in the research that we hardly knew a thing and that there was this whole fully-realized civil rights struggle raging in this country almost all through the 19th century led by people like Catto and many other men and women. These people, you know, fought to integrate big league baseball 80 years before Jackie Robinson, fought to integrate the horse-drawn streetcars of Philadelphia 90 years before Rosa Parks, and marched for voting rights a hundred years before Selma.

SIMON: Boy, how did he go about desegregating the streetcars of Philadelphia?

BIDDLE: There was an early and well-organized campaign of civil disobedience on the streetcars by forcing their way nonviolently onto streetcars and hanging onto their seats until conductors or police officers bodily threw them off.

SIMON: Octavius Catto must have been an extraordinarily compelling personality.

BIDDLE: You know, we like to say he's one of the few historic figures who has been likened to both Martin Luther King and George Steinbrenner. He was part of a generation of young men and women of color who had been raised by parents who had been denied the right to a schoolhouse. And yet, by the time Octavius Catto was 12 or 14 or 15 years old, he'd gotten a terrific education because his father was going to get that for his kid by hook or crook. And so along comes Catto and other men and women like him, by civil war time, came to adulthood believing that they could change the world.

SIMON: And I have to ask about the baseball team.

BIDDLE: The Pythians were a black baseball team in Philadelphia from about 1866 to 1872. And they were damn good. And like just about every other dimension of his life, he used that arena to fight for equality.

SIMON: And he met a tragic end, I gather.

BIDDLE: Yup. Much like Martin Luther King, he had his young life cut short by gunfire from a white assassin.

SIMON: I don't understand how America doesn't know so much about him and why Philadelphia took so long to recognize him.

BIDDLE: I think part of it is that in the decades after reconstruction, there was almost a big version of what we might now call a white backlash. America got into the birth of a nation era when that movie depicted Klansmen as heroes and black leaders of reconstruction as morons and sexual predators when in fact there's this whole rich history that lots of good historians have started to dig out in the last few decades of black political activists who even began their activism right at the tail end of slavery.

Much like the modern Freedom Riders - there's so many echoes between that generation and this one - Catto's generation came back from many of their marches and meetings with their heads bloodied or their bones broken or their churches burned. And yet, like those modern freedom fighters, they went back for more. And, of course, the tragedy is the stories of their of their battles and their victories are not widely known or taught. But the beauty of this moment is this statue is a chance to change that and to get this story told and taught.

SIMON: Dan Biddle, who's co-author of "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America" coming out soon in paperback, thanks so much for being with us.

BIDDLE: Thank you. My pleasure, Scott.