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Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America Hardcover – August 13, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"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

"[A] marvelous historical feast for lovers of Afro-American, Philadelphia, and American history alike.... 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.... One would have to search far and wide to find a better-researched and more compellingly readable biography." 

The Philadelphia Inquirer

"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

"An entrancing portrait of a leading Renaissance man for equal rights. . . . Nothing matches it at the moment as a prequel to Thomas J. Sugrue’s much-noted Sweet Land of Liberty."
Library Journal

"This rich biography...restores Catto to his important place in the pantheon of civil rights heroes."

About the Author

Daniel R. Biddle, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Pennsylvania editor, has worked in nearly every phase of newspaper reporting and editing. His investigative stories on the courts won a Pulitzer Prize and other national awards. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and has taught at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Cynthia Roberts, live in Philadelphia.

Murray Dubin, author of South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories and the Melrose Diner, was a reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 34 years before leaving the newspaper in 2005. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Libby Rosof.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Temple Univ Press (August 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592134653
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592134656
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #983,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Andrew W. Cole on September 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anyone interested in what could be called the first wave of the Black Civil Rights movement will find this book fascinating although those who wonder whether we can learn from history may find the content depressing. All the battles that Octavius Catto and the other Civil Rights leaders fought, such as the integration of public transportation, baseball and the right to vote, had to be fought again after the failure of Reconstruction in the 1870's.

Dubin and Biddle have done a good job of balancing scholarship with the obviously cinematic scope of Catto and the other Black leaders of this era. Although Catto is the linchpin of the story, other characters, such as Caroline Rebecca le Count and Martin Delany, have lives capable of carrying an entire book themselves. Their accomplishments, and our lack of knowledge of them, illustrate a loss of common historical knowledge that "Taste of Freedom" attempts to rectify. Delany was an explorer (he traversed the Niger and presented to the Royal Geographic Society), novelist and journalist, and a Civil War Officer. Le Count was arguably the premier Black educator in Philadelphia and a well known singer, recitalist, and public speaker.

An unexpected treat in this book is the interweaving of the history of baseball. Catto was apparently an excellent second baseman and adept at arranging the games between Black and White teams in an era when challenges were written and expected to have classical references.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in getting a feel for what it was like in America for Blacks after the Civil War and the beginnings of the politics of race.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Larry Eichel on September 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover
First and foremost, Tasting Freedom does what any history book should do: It tells you things you didn't know, and it does so in compelling fashion. The writing is powerful, the research exhaustive. The book focuses on the largely forgotten attempts by African Americans in the North to achieve a few basic civil rights in the years before, during and after the Civil War. In these pages are the stories of efforts to secure the vote and establish schools as well as campaigns to integrate the streetcars, the literary societies, even organized baseball. Connecting it all is the life of Octavius Catto, an eloquent and fearless black Philadelphian murdered in an election-day shooting in 1871. Catto's early death (he was 32) may have been all that stopped him from becoming someone all of us would have known about even without this valuable book. Tasting Freedom gives us the chance to know him now.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Susan Caba on February 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
September, 2013

I wanted to update my review of Tasting Freedom, in light of this year's anniversary of the March on Washington. Tasting Freedom, as I say below, is dense with the accounts of little-known heroes and activists who marked the first trails of the Civil Rights movement with which we are familiar. So many, many of them deserve further attention and Biddle and Dubin have provided the stepping stones for more research and more books. I would urge any history teacher or student to break away from the tried, true and already familiar stories and use Tasting Freedom as a jumping off point for new directions. If you, or one of your students, is interested in baseball, pick a character from this book and write a paper, a book or even a Tweet. Same with feminism, abolition, transportation. I'm continually amazed at the nuggets I pick up just leafing through Tasting Freedom. This is such a valuable resource for imaginative teachers and ambitious historians.

This is the perfect winter for reading Tasting Freedom. Build the fire, pour a glass of wine and dig in. It's not a fast read, but fascinating, especially in the revelation that so many of the civil rights struggles I thought of as 20th century contemporary--integration of public transportation and professional sports teams, to name two--were presaged in 19th century Philadelphia.
The narrative centers around Octavius Catto but Catto's life is only the vehicle for what is both an exhaustive review and a cursory examination of the Civil Rights movement as it developed before and after the Civil War.
Exhaustive because Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin unearthed an abundance of historical accounts and little-known facts that they use to create the context for Catto's story.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Timothy B. Riley HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
As a child living in the Midwest, I grew up thinking of slavery as a particularly Southern problem--one solved by the principles and practices of the North. In grade school, we learned about Harriet Tubman and other heroes of the Underground Railroad who spirited slaves from the shackles of the South to freedom and a new life in the North.

Unfortunately, the pre-Civil War North hardly offered a life of unfettered opportunity and equality for those who managed to get there. They more often than not encountered mob violence, incredibly poor housing conditions, menial jobs and the fear of being captured and returned to slavery. They were denied public education, secure churches of their own and the right to vote.

Tasting Freedom chronicles the life of Octavius Valentine Catto, a black educator, intellectual, Union Army officer, accomplished baseball player and Civil Rights martyr who was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Catto's father, the son of a slave, brought his family to Baltimore and later to Philadelphia in search of a better life. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Octavius Catto advocated peaceful protest to bring about change. He had an incredible talent for achieving integration by such means as arranging games between all-black and all-white baseball teams and in his leadership during the streetcar segregation struggle.

He was murdered during riots--in which he was not a willing participant--on Election Day in 1871 over the rights of free blacks to vote. Although the book uses Catto's story as a focal point, Tasting Freedom is much more than a biography. The book brings to life the daily realities of a black person in mid-19th century Philadelphia, the city known as the "Birthplace of Freedom.
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