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News UD prof knew long ago that Catto's statue needed to rise

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Octavius Catto

Dan Biddle, a history major in college, says he was "embarrassed" that he had never heard of Octavius Catto, one of the country's earliest civil rights heroes.

Ninety years before Rosa Parks kept her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Catto was a teacher, baseball player and one of the leading activists in Philadelphia. On Election Day in 1871, Catto getting black people to the polls when a white man shot him to death. Catto was 32; the attacker was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

Catto's story was rescued from obscurity when Dan Biddle, with co-author with Murray Dubin, published "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto And The Battle For Equality In Civil War America" in 2010. The book is now out in paperback.

Authors, filmmaker with the statue

​Co-authors Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle, with filmmaker Tigre Hill in front, at unveiling of Octavius Catto statue. Photo/courtesy of Tigre Hill

And on Sept. 26, 2017, during a time when many statues of white men of the era were coming down across the country, the city of Philadelphia unveiled a statue to Catto. It was "almost too good to be true," Biddle says.

Biddle says he and Dubin once believed Catto's short life and violent death merited a biography, a research and writing project the two veteran Philadelphia Inquirer journalists could complete in a year.

It took seven.

Why? The answer lay in the words of Catto family descendant Leonard Smith, who urged Biddle and Dubin to learn about the other men and women of that early civil rights movement - the "hundred O.V. Cattos," as Smith put it. They were teachers and preachers, painters and porters, barbers and undertakers, Underground Railroad passengers and conductors. They sat in on streetcars, petitioned legislatures, pestered presidents, marched for the right to vote - and like the Freedom Riders of the modern civil rights struggle, they often came back from meetings or marches with their heads bloodied, their bones broken or their churches burned.

Even so, Biddle says, "They went back for more" - and they won some victories.

Yet most modern Americans don't know their stories.  Biddle says the goal of his and Dubin's book was to change that.

As it happened, another Philadelphian was working toward the same goal. For more than a decade, City Councilman Jim Kenney - now, Mayor Kenney - led the effort that culminated in the dedication of a statue of Catto on the southwest apron of Philadelphia City Hall. In a city with as many as 1,700 statues on public land, Catto's is the first to depict an African American.

As hundreds of onlookers cheered, Kenney and sculptor Branly Cadet unveiled the bronze statue of Catto striding toward a ballot box, a streetcar behind him, his arms outstretched as if to embrace his allies or engage his enemies. As the mayor told the crowd, it's only a start. Major efforts to teach the stories of Catto and his allies in Philadelphia schools have already begun.

Biddle and Dubin - who were in the cheering crowd that day - are helping those efforts. The curriculum is changing even as children, parents and teachers have begun flocking to the statue.

"That," Biddle says, "is a beautiful sight. It makes me proud of my city."

Listen to Biddle and Murray talk about Catto's influence on Radio Times and read more at Newsworks.

Story published on 9/26/2017 ; last modified on  
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Biddle, Dubin and Hill at ceremony

Co-authors Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle, with filmmaker Tigre Hill in front, at unveiling of Octavius Catto statue. Catto was one of the country's first civil rights activists.

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UD prof knew long ago that Catto's statue needed to rise
  • The Journalism Program
  • 221 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • 302-831-4921