In the tourism trade, Philadelphia owns the Colonial era. No other city can match the heft of the birth of the nation as it is represented here. As such, Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin have cast long shadows over the history of the city.
This summer, there’s a new kid on the block: a black man from the Civil War-era named Octavius Catto.
“I was born a free man in 1839 in South Carolina,” said Catto, as channeled by actor Robert Branch. “People are not aware that at the same time there was slavery, there were many free men of color, like me, and there was a large community of free men of color in Philadelphia.”
Historic Philadelphia, Inc. hires actors to wander Independence Mall and engage tourists with stories told as characters from history. To mark the 150 anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Historical Philadelphia is rolling out 19th century characters to join those from the 18th. They include Sgt. William Howe of the 186th Fort Mifflin Guard, as portrayed by actor William McIlhenny in full military regalia.
Although there are no smoking guns here (it’s no Fort Sumter, nor Gettysburg), Philadelphia had a significant influence on how the Civil War unfolded.
“Even during the great debates of our Founding Fathers, slavery was a major issue,” said Wayne Spilove, chairman of Historic Philadelphia. “The Civil War was a culmination of that. It’s a continuation of the debate they never settled in 1776.”
The largest training ground for black soldiers–Camp William Penn–was located in Elkins Park. And Catto, an abolitionist and later a civil rights activist, rallied black men to fight for the Union.
After the war, Catto went to Harrisburg to open up horse-drawn streetcars to blacks (90 years before Rosa Parks) and fought to integrate baseball (80 years before Jackie Robinson). He also encouraged black men in Philadelphia to vote.
He was shot and killed on Election Day 1871.