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E. View of the United States Capitol. Washington, D. C., Drawn and Engraved by Henry Sartain, Hand-colored Engraving, 1863. [1]

Witness Post: Philip Reed (1818 – 1892)


Having stood in the Rotunda of the Capitol looking up at that beautiful, monstrous dome, it is easy to marvel at its magnificence. But there should be no illusions that the creator of that dome, Thomas U. Walter, was the ‘god of American architects.’ His life was superlative in many ways, and it is also laced with heart ache and tragedy. The historical records do not delve into many of his feelings about his family or his trials, regrets or lamentations.

He must have been a man of great faith, who took the next set-back as time to reconsider, change, and move on. Whether the loss of a spouse, or the death of a child, or the horrors of war, he soldiered on. What one can see from the public record is that Thomas Ustick Walter proved to be a man who loved the ancient and the avant-garde, the downtrodden and the supreme.

Walter was an artist at heart. He inherited the Bullfinch dome, which no longer had capacity for our expanding government, and he was charged with creating something better and bigger.

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United States Capitol with former Charles Bulfinch dome, 1846

Of course in the creating of the new Capitol Dome, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of personal stories about the building itself and of the men and women who built it. From the interior frescoes to the statuary, from the personnel squabbles to the success, from deaths to rebirth … the history is rich. And the origin stories of Washington, DC, and the Capitol are complicated and shamed by the injustices of the war-torn era.


The Story of Philip Reed

One of the most revealing stories in the creative arts and racial tensions, honors the brains and brawn of a Black man. He could not read or write, he could not run free or take a break. He was an African American indentured servant. His name was Philip Reed. The irony of the story is that we might not have that statue of Freedom on top of the Dome, without the wits, ingenuity and labor of a slave.


When reconstruction of the US Capitol after the Bullfinch Dome began in 1860’s, the city of Washington, DC, was little more than a rural landscape with dirt roads and few accommodations, beyond a small number of boarding houses. Skilled labor was hard to find or attract to the fledgling seat of power. Enslaved laborers, who were rented from their owners, were involved in every stage of the cities’ resurrection and construction.

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Drawing of slave laborers as they worked construction in DC (circa 1800)

Born around 1818, Philip Reid grew up in South Carolina. His servitude was purchased by several families in the palmetto state. When he was in his twenties, Reid became an enslaved laborer and worked in a bronze-casting foundry owned by Clark Mills, the self-taught sculptor. Mills purchased Reid as a slave at an auction in Charleston. Mills stated he bought Reid, “many years ago, when he was quite a youth … because of his evident talent for the business in which your petitioner was engaged, and paid twelve hundred dollars for him.” In 1840, a twenty-something year old man’s worth was negotiated to be $1,200.

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Clark Mills (1810 – 1883)

Mills moved to Washington, DC, in the late 1840’s, and he brought Reid with him. The reason for the move was that Mills had won the competition to build an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. The large statue was commissioned by Congress for installation in Lafayette Park. In order to construct the Jackson bronze statue, Mills, with the help of Reid, erected a temporary foundry south of the White House.

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Clark Mills’ Foundry, Photograph by Mathew Brady, National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, DC.

Through ‘trial and error,’ Mills, Reid and other workmen produced what became the first bronze equestrian statue ever cast in America, and certainly the first to have a horse on it’s hind legs without additional supports. The accomplishment was extraordinary due to the absence of any formal training of any of the participants.


 Andrew Jackson on horseback, bronze by Mills and Reid, in Lafayette Park, Wash., DC.

In the spring of 1860, with the success of the Jackson statue and other equestrian monuments, Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War, extended to Mills the commission for the casting of Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom. Crawford’s rendition had specifically been chosen by a Cabinet committee to sit atop the Capitol’s new dome. A financial agreement was reached, whereby the government would rent Clark Mills’ Foundry, pay him $400 a month for his services, as well as pay for the necessary labor and materials.

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Philip Reid was the only known slave working on the Freedom statue. He worked alongside of four other white laborers: James A. Riddle, Peter Coyl, Rezin Offutt and Michael Sheedy. As an enslaved worker, Philip Reid was paid directly for the work he completed only on Sundays; his owner, Mills, received the payment for his work the other six days of the week. Reid was to be paid a rate of $1.25 per day, a quarter dollar higher than the other laborers, who received $1 a day.

Reid could neither read nor write, so he signed his contract with a simple X by his name. There are no known images of Philip Reid.

In June 1860, the bronze casting of the Statue of Freedom began. The first step was to disassemble the plaster model of the statue, and to lay it out in its main sections. The disassembly was needed to move the statue from the Capitol to the foundry. The model had been shipped from Rome to the United States in five main sections, and upon its arrival, an Italian sculptor was hired to assemble the model. However, when the time came to move the plaster model from the Capitol to the foundry for casting, no one knew how to separate it’s pieces. The Italian sculptor, hired for the preliminary and final assembly, had covered the seams of the sections with a layer of plaster, making them impossible to detect. He refused to help separate the pieces, unless he were given a pay raise.

Fortunately, Philip Reid was there; he figured out that, by using a pulley and tackle system, he could pull up on the lifting ring at the top of the model, and the seams between the sections would be revealed. With Reid’s pulley and tackle system, the statue was successfully separated into its five sections and transported to the foundry.

File:Thomas Crawford's Freedom J11.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A stylized version of Crawford’s Statue of Freedom , drawn by Thomas Eakins, July 1861.

For the better part of a year, Reid worked most weeks at the foundry without a break. He started work on July 1, 1860 by keeping the fires burning. Those fires stayed hot until the casting ended and Reid stayed working until assembly ended on May 16, 1861. Over that period, Reid was paid $41.25 for 33 Sundays, of “Keeping up fires under the moulds.”

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Statue of Freedom, refurbished

Philip Reid received his freedom from slavery on April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. The Act released certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia. After 44 years of slavery, Reid could finally taste his own freedom. He decided to change the spelling of his last name to REED, reflecting his change from Mills’ spelling.

Mills petitioned Congress for compensation for his release of Reed and eleven others. In Mills’ petition he described Philip Reed as, “aged 42 years, mullatto [sic] color, short in stature, in good health, not prepossessing in appearance but smart in mind, a good workman in a foundry,” and requested $1,500 for his losses. As compensation Mills received $350.

No one knows if Reed witnessed the placement of the Statue of Freedom on the tholos (the special platform on top of the dome), which was celebrated with a 35-gun salute; but we do know that Philip Reed was a free man. The last bolt of the statue to the tholos was secured to the US Capitol Dome on December 2, 1863.


In 1863, a newspaper correspondent, praising the magnificent work wrote, “The Black master-builder lifted the ponderous uncouth masses and bolted them together, joint by joint, piece by piece, till they blended into the majestic ‘Statue of Freedom‘…. Was there a prophecy in that moment when the slave became the artist and with rare poetic justice, reconstructed the beautiful symbol of freedom for America?” The Senate Historical Office reprinted these words in their tribute to Mr. Reed, in an article entitled, “Philip Reid and the Statue of Freedom,” which became part of their series, The Civil War: The Senate’s Story. [3]

Two years later, author S.D. Wyeth wrote a tribute to Philip Reed in The Federal City in 1865. He said, “Mr. Reed, the former slave, is now in business for himself, and highly esteemed by all who know him.” [2]

Few aspects of Mr. Reed’s life as a free man are commonly known, beyond his sculpting. A glimpse of his life came from The Federal City, which cited the 1870 US Census and gave some clues: Philip Reed married his first wife, Jane, in June 1862, and they had a male child the next year. Then 18 years later, in 1880, Reed’s second wife, was listed as Mary P., who worked as a laundress in DC.

But memories about this great artisan did not last long.

Unknown Grave Site

Philip Reed died a free man on February 6, 1892, and was buried at Graceland Cemetery in a plot that had a view of the Dome of the Capitol, his greatest achievement. Reed’s eternal resting place, however, was not eternal. In 1895 his remains were disinterred and reburied in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Columbian Harmony, located at the corner of 9th Street NE and Rhode Island Avenue, was a cemetery for African-Americans. Sixty-four years later (1959), the D.C. government disinterred his remains again, along with those of 37,000 other people from the old Harmony Cemetery, and transferred them to the new National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville, Maryland. [4]

A plaque honoring Philip Reed was unveiled on April 16, 2014, which was the 152nd anniversary of the Emancipation in Washington, DC.

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According to the offsite Memorial Park historian, the National Harmony Memorial Park could only show the general area where Reed was buried. It was in “an empty acre of grass.” The Park claimed that they had attempted to reach Reed’s descendants and when no one responded they buried the remains without a headstone.[4]

Post Script

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I hope we remember Philip Reed’s name and his contribution to the US Capitol Dome, long after the Andrew Jackson statue is removed from Lafayette Square and the statue of Freedom gets replaced with something less symbolic and offensive to someone in power.

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[1]  The lithographer took many liberties with this painting of the Capitol in 1863—at that time none of the porticoes had been finished, the dome was not complete, and the Statue of Freedom had not yet been mounted into place. The Capitol grounds were littered with construction materials and work sheds instead of the strolling citizens depicted here. In this view, unpleasant realities––particularly the horror of the Civil War––were purposefully set aside as the artist anticipated the return of peace and prosperity. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Barber B. Conable, Jr.

[2]  http://www.aoc.gov/philip-reid-and-statue-freedom

[3]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Reid

[4]  The Columbian Harmony Cemetery site was later sold to developers, and a portion was used for the construction of the Rhode Island Ave.-Brentwood station of the Washington Metro.

[5]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Reid