Tuesday, March 1, 2011

US Slave Philip Reid Cast The Statue of Freedom

Her name is Freedom, but she owes her existence to a slave.

The Kathy Keily of USA Today reported: For much of the summer, a small team of conservationists perched atop the U.S. Capitol has been working to protect a relic of American history with a little-known back story.

So as the preservation work continues on Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace, as the allegorical statue is formally known, it's a good time to pay tribute to some of the unsung heroes of the Capitol: the slaves who helped build it. One of them was Philip Reid, without whom the 19½-foot, 15,000-pound bronze piece might never have occupied its place of honor above the nation's capital.

American sculptor Thomas Crawford created the plaster model for the statue at a studio in Rome during the mid-1800s and shipped it to Washington in five pieces. After it arrived, officials decided to assemble the model so passersby could admire it while the Capitol dome was under construction. According to a contemporary account, it was "put together so nicely by an adroit Italian employed about the Capitol that no crevices were perceptible."

That turned out to be a problem when the time came to transport the model to a nearby foundry where the bronze version was to be cast. It was too big to move in one piece, and the Italian workman who knew where the joints were refused to divulge the secret, holding out for a big raise.

Foundry owner Clark Mills assigned the task of solving the puzzle to Reid, one of his most skilled workmen — and one of Mills' slaves. Attaching a rope to Freedom's head, Reid used a block and tackle to tug gently upward until hairline cracks in the plaster began to reveal the statue's separate pieces.

Pay stubs unearthed later revealed that Reid also worked on the casting of the bronze. The government paid slaves' owners for most days they worked, but the slaves themselves were compensated if they pulled a Sunday shift. Reid earned $41.25 for working 33 Sundays in 1861 at $1.25 a day.

By the time Freedom was raised atop the Capitol dome in December 1862, Reid was a free man. The District of Columbia's 3,100 slaves were freed that year by an act of Congress. According to a document on file with the National Archives, Mills sought $1,500 in compensation when Reid was freed. Altogether, the federal government paid almost $1 million to D.C. slave owners.

Today, the plaster model of Freedom that Reid helped disassemble is on display in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building's rotunda. Inside the Capitol, there are dozens of displays about the artisans who helped create it. But the work of Reid and other slaves remains an all-but-untold story. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society mentions it in a traveling exhibit about the history of African-Americans in the Capitol, but no permanent memorial exists in the building itself.

After Ed Hotaling, a journalist who was working for a Washington TV station, uncovered documents in 2000 attesting to the work of the slaves, Congress promised to come up with a way to commemorate the contributions of slave laborers at the Capitol. A task force has yet to come up with a plan. Brenda Jones, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who is a member of the task force, says the group is still "trying to determine what would be the best way to honor slave laborers."

Hotaling worries that the effort could lose momentum. "I think politicians are embarrassed and don't know how to deal with it," he says. Instead, he argues, America's leaders should be doing everything they can "to encourage further discussion and study of the role slaves played in creating America's temple of liberty. They made an enormous contribution to American life."

Philip Reid, a thirty-nine-year-old slave from South Carolina, cast and helped to save the model of the Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol Dome.

source: USA Today, "Slave had a hand in statue of Freedom," by Kathy Kiely, 14 Aug. 2007


  1. A Vision of Freedom

    A brief look at the history of African Americans and their part in building the United States Capitol. Written for 8th grade to high school age group, but adults will find it great reading. Softcover, 28pp., 2006.


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