Capt. William Catlin of Monongahela was known for holding sit-ins at businesses that excluded black people like him five decades before the civil rights movement got under way.
There is one story about the Civil War veteran sitting down about 1905 to block the entrance to a Mon Valley movie theater that wouldn’t allow black people inside, said Beaver County native Kenneth C. Turner, an author and historian.
“People couldn’t get past him. This was far ahead of his time,” said Turner, adding Catlin also was among the first black men to be allowed to serve in the National Guard in the United States.
“We doubted this (National Guard) story, to be honest,” Turner said.
So did the archivist at the state Historical and Museum Commission who searched a large volume of handwritten records looking for the dates Catlin served in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
The states of New York and Delaware had been in an ongoing battle over each’s claims to have been the first in the country to allow black men into their guard units, Turner said.
“Turns out Pennsylvania beat them by 20 years,” Turner said, citing records the PHMC found confirming when the state allowed black men to join its National Guard.
Turner and other black men were allowed to serve in an all-black Pennsylvania National Guard unit in 1871 by then Gov. John White Geary, who was a general in the Civil War and attended Jefferson College in Canonsburg.
“As governor he was known for inclusion because he witnessed what black troops had accomplished in the Civil War,” said Turner, adding the decision to allow black man into the Guard worked against Geary politically.
Catlin’s obituary published in The Daily Republican in Monongahela cited his service in Company F, 10th Regiment, 17th Division of the National Guard, which was disbanded in 1878, five years after Geary left office.
Catlin had tried twice to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War only to be denied entry because of his skin color. Eventually, the Army formed the 32nd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry and allowed him into the unit.
Following the war, Catlin led efforts in 1899 to secede from the Afro-American Republican League to co-found a new group in Western Pennsylvania “to pressure Republican politicians for civil rights measures,” according to the book “Organizing Black America,” by Nina Mjagkij.
Catlin, a barber, was born in West Newton Sept. 22, 1846, to free black parents whose relatives had been in Monongahela before 1834.
He died Oct. 10, 1930, at age 84, and was buried in a family plot of unsegregated graves in Monongahela Cemetery, a nonprofit organization that was unaware of Catlin’s contributions to black history until after Turner in 2012 co-published a book, “The Civil War in Pennsylvania: A Photographic History.” The book includes a photo of Catlin and discusses his story.
“We were unaware of his importance,” said cemetery board member Jack Cataneo.
He said the city pays “great homage” to its veterans and that he wants to “stimulate interest” in having an historic marker somewhere in town to honor Catlin.