“This book is an encyclopedic epic that both rescues the little-known civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto from relative anonymity and is a seminal study of a range of related topics. … Tasting Freedom is highly recommended for anyone interested in 19th-century American life, especially because of its detailed account of the little-known civil rights movement. Catto and his generation laid the foundation for the 1960s movement through advances in education, integration of public transportation in Philadelphia and involvement of blacks in baseball.”Read more »

Michael Russert

Civil War News

“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.” Read more »

Allen B. Ballard

Philadelphia Inquirer Review

“Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin have brought to life a leader of the Civil War-era struggle against slavery and for equal rights for blacks. This dramatic book not only rescues the intrepid Octavius Catto from obscurity but reminds us that this struggle—and the violent opposition to it—long predated the modern civil rights era.”

Eric Foner

DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University

“Pair Black Gotham [by Carla Peterson] with Dubin and Biddle’s Tasting Freedom and you emerge with the power to see both New York and Philadelphia anew (and to anticipate the course of 20th century civil rights). Both books are grounded in the tumult of neighborhood life, in the schools, in the strategies and disappointments of civil rights visionaries. … But whereas Peterson ultimately becomes limited by the personal nature of her inquiry … Dubin and Biddle weave a magisterial narrative. They took the same—or very similar—archival material and transformed it into a singular gripping drama, in which every detail is carefully placed to reward the reader.” Read more »

Nathaniel Popkin

“Killed in an 1871 Philadelphia Election Day riot to keep blacks from voting, Octavius Valentine Catto (1839–71) was a gifted schoolteacher, spellbinding classical orator, and first-rate second baseman. Most important, he was a civil rights activist. With fellow blacks who called themselves a “band of brothers,” Catto pushed to desegregate streetcars, secure voting rights, and demand rigor in schools in Pennsylvania and its self-styled City of Brotherly Love during the turbulent Civil War era.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Biddle and his retired Philadelphia Inquirer colleague Dubin here recount Catto’s life. In brightly written, accessible, detail-packed prose, they follow Catto from birth in Charleston, SC, through his family’s move north, his schooling, and his camaraderie with the likes of black leaders such as Frederick Douglass. The captivating story illustrates the too often neglected street battles for black rights in northern cities long before the hot summers of the 1960s.

VERDICT: Biddle and Dubin have produced an entrancing portrait of a leading Renaissance man for equal rights; their book demands attention from students of the theme, time, and place. Nothing matches it at the moment as a prequel to Thomas J. Sugrue’s much-noted Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.”

Thomas J. Davis

Arizona State University, Tempe
Library Journal,
starred review

“This is a great story and a compelling history of the original civil rights movement—with its own Dr. King. In Tasting Freedom, Biddle and Dubin bring to light a hero whose footprints helped lead America through the challenges of racial injustice: Octavius Catto. The story is both riveting and elucidative”

Juan Williams

Author of Eyes on the Prize and Thurgood Marshall

Tasting Freedom is masterfully researched and cogently written. Biddle and Dubin transport us to yesteryear, profiling some of the central figures of the Civil War era and revealing the birth and rise of the black intelligentsia in this country. Tasting Freedom is a valuable triumph—and a work of importance.”

Elijah Anderson

Yale University

Tasting Freedom is required reading for anyone who thinks the civil rights movement started in the 1950s, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (hint: you’re off by a full century). This is a revelation for those of us who grew up being fed morality tales about righteous Northern free staters standing against Southern slaveholders (hint: neither offered real freedom). Biddle and Dubin’s book is for all of us who love a story about baseball and war, about race and the making of America.”

Larry Tye

Author of Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend

“If you fancy knowing about growing up black in mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia, there is no better place to start than with Biddle and Dubin’s powerful and poignant biography of Octavius V. Catto. For those who believe that post–Civil War Reconstruction was only a Southern affair, this book is an eye-opener.”

Gary B. Nash

Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA
and author of The Liberty Bell

“Biddle and Dubin do a superb job of exploring the complex and fascinating life of forgotten civil rights hero Octavius V. Catto. The research is first-rate and the breadth of coverage is impressive.”

Julie Winch

University of Massachusetts Boston

Connect with Catto's History

Meet the Authors

When they are not writing, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin love to talk -- especially about the book. Invite them to speak to your book club, church, college class, civil war commemoration, fraternal group, library event, historical association meeting and more.
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Video Introduction

We like to talk. Our publicist put us in front of a video camera, asked three questions and then crossed his fingers. We're probably a little too serious at the beginning, but we loosen up as the video goes on.
Take a look >

A Call to Arms

Click to get a closer look, you can see the name of Octavius Catto at the bottom, as well as his father's.

This broadside is eight feet high and was seen on windows in downtown Philadelphia in June, 1863, as black leaders called a meeting to convince black men to join the Union Army prior to Gettysburg.