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Philip Reid: Slave Caster of Freedom

Philip Reid: Slave Caster of Freedom
by Dr. Eugene Walton

[photograph]When Freedom, the statue perched atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol, was hoisted in place on December 2, 1863, Philip Reid was there, in spirit if not in body, standing tall and relishing his greatest accomplishment. Philip Reid was a slave at the Bladensburg (Maryland) Foundry when he supervised the bronze casting of the statue. Shortly after he completed this mission, the District of Columbia issued its Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery within the Capital City and Philip Reid became a free man.

Having recently achieved his own freedom was reason enough to make the hoisting of Freedom very special for Philip Reid. What made it even more special was the way in which he had come to supervise the casting of the statue. This is a true story that belongs near the top of the list of Great Chronicles of American History-a story that every American, particularly
students, should study and take to heart.

The story of Philip Reid and the casting of the Statue of Freedom is best told by Patrick Reynolds in is Cartoon History of the District of Columbia: 

Thomas Crawford completed the full -size plaster model of Freedom at his studio in Rome, Italy in 1856. When cast in bronze, it would stand atop the Dome of the United States Capitol. 

In April, 1858, the model left Rome in six crates aboard the Emily Taylor. While crossing the Atlantic, the Taylor sprung a leak which got progressively worse. The Taylor made it to Bermuda and was condemned. Freedom was transferred to another ship for the trip to the Mills Foundry in Maryland.

The Government had awarded the Mills Foundry a contract to cast the plaster model in bronze and the work began in May, 1860. When the casting was almost finished however, the Foundry Foreman went on strike for higher wages, believing he was the only person qualified to see the casting to its completion.

Clark Mills, owner of the foundry, rejected the foreman's demand and instead turned to the slave who had been working along side of the Foreman and put him in charge of the final casting. The slave's name was Philip Reid. Philip Reid supervised the remaining casting of the statue in five sections, each weighing over a ton. The tons of Freedom were moved by wagons from Bladensburg, Maryland to Washington. Philip Reid and other slaves put the Statue of Freedom together on the grounds of the Capitol in 31 days during the Spring of 1863. On December 2, 1863 the Statue of Freedom was hoisted to the top of the Capitol Dome amid great celebration and a 35-Gun Salute.

Philip Reid was amongst the last of hundreds of slaves involved in the building of the Capitol between 1790 and 1863. The slaves worked in the quarries of Virginia, digging and transporting the stone that became the beautiful building that we so admire today. At the building site the slaves performed the truly backbreaking work required to place the cut stones on
the walls of the Capitol building. They dug trenches and ditches, hauled lumber and performed other tasks requiring great strength and stamina. About half the workforce at the Capitol building site were such slaves.

During the Summer of 2000 the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 368 to establish a task force to study ways of honoring the slaves who helped build the Capitol. This Resolution, when passed by the U.S. Senate, will begin a process that will shed light on one of the most unilluminated stories in American History.

In the meantime, all of us who are aware of this history have an obligation to educate Americans on Philip Reid's connection to the most prominently placed symbol in all of Washington. We must make sure that each American who peers at the Dome will not only see Freedom but will also know about Philip Reid's connection to the statue and about the contributions of the many slaves who helped build the U.S. Capitol.


Dr. Eugene Walton is the Producer of the video "Philip Reid And The Slaves Who Built The Capitol"  ( available at www.philipreid.org). He was previously Coordinator of Affirmative Action Programs at the Library of Congress.

Editor's note: If you would like to purchase the video Dr. Walton produced, you may acquire it on his website. It provides a good framework for a discussion of the participation of slaves in the building of the US capitol.


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