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–by Maggie Esteves

The centerpiece of Emancipation Hall, the main thoroughfare in the Capitol Visitor Center, is a 19 1/2 foot plaster statue. It is the original mold used to create the State of Freedom, which has stood atop the U.S. Capitol dome since 1863 as the most recognized symbol of American democracy and freedom.

The Statue of Freedom (Architect of the Capitol)

Ironically, this statue celebrating the freedom of all Americans would not have come to be without the skill of one enslaved man in 1860.

Freedom’s journey to her platform 288 feet above the Capitol plaza began across the ocean in Italy where she was sculpted by Thomas Crawford, an American artist. Her passage to the United States was a harrowing one—several ships carrying different segments made emergency landings in Gibraltar and Bermuda before arriving in Washington, D.C. Eventually the plaster mold found its way to the foundry of Clark Mills, located off of Bladensburg Road in northeast DC. It was there that the project came to a halt. A skilled Italian craftsman refused to assist Mills in disassembling the statue into pieces for casting unless he was paid more money. Mills thought his request was outlandish, even though the craftsman was the only person believed to have the knowledge to complete this task. So Mills turned to the other workers, mostly enslaved African Americans, in the foundry to come up with a solution. Enter Philip Reid, a mulatto man owned by Mills, who was a highly skilled worker at the foundry. Through the ingenuity of Reid the mold was successfully disassembled using a pulley and tackle; the project could go on.

1859 drawing of the plans for the Freedom atop the Dome (Architect of the Capitol)

Reid continued working on the Statue of Freedom, receiving pay at $1.25 a day only for the time he put in on Sundays. That is, until on April 16, 1862 (150 years ago last week) Philip Reid, the enslaved man who had saved the statue named Freedom, was granted his own freedom by the DC Emancipation Act. (Owners of enslaved people could apply for compensation; here is Mills’ petition. Note that he puts Reid’s value far higher than the others included in the petition.)

Reid was a paid, free man working at Clark Mills’ foundry on December 2, 1863 when the 15,000 pound bronze statue was hoisted to the top of the newly-complete Capitol dome. A Washington correspondent wrote in the New York Tribune:

“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?”

Works Consulted
Senate History Office on Philip Reid

USCHS The Capitol Dome article on enslaved laborers building the Capitol
The Capitol Dome article on the Statue of Freedom

Architect of the Capitol on the Statue of Freedom