JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer email@example.com, 215-854-5960 Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014, 12:16 AM
WHO’S OCTAVIUS V. Catto? Why is the Mann Center for the Performing Arts launching the first Philadelphia Freedom Festival in his honor, starting next month and culminating with a big concert in July featuring newly commissioned music by Uri Caine, performances by gospel great Dr. Marvin Sapp, a 300-voice choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra?
Ask the average older guy on the street, and he might remember, painfully, a school in West Philadelphia formerly named for Catto (pronounced “Cat-oh”).
“It was a place they sent you if you were a bad kid,” shared Daniel Biddle, co-author with Murray Dubin of the 2010 biography Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.
“The name was used by parents and teachers as a threat. ‘That’s where you’re going to wind up, at Catto,’ ” said Biddle, an editor at the Inquirer, which, like the Daily News, is owned by Interstate General Media. (The school was later renamed to honor singer/activist Paul Robeson.)
“We were looking to do something special, community-based, timed to this year’s 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and Catto’s name came up, suggested by someone who’d read Tasting Freedom,” said Cahill.
“Catto was truly a Renaissance man,” added Williams, citing his accomplishments as an educator, athlete, patriot and activist.
Catto took a leadership role in recruiting the first African-American regiments in the previously all-white Union Army of the Civil War. He integrated trolley cars in Philadelphia; and organized and played in Philadelphia’s Negro Baseball League team, which had the balls (bats and gloves) to take on white teams.
Leading a high-profile civil rights march, Catto brought thousands of protesters to Broad Street “right here in front of the Union League,” noted Dubin, gazing out the club’s windows.
Freedom fest honors another king