OVERLOOKED PEOPLE WHO DESERVE TO BE REMEMBERED

Philip Reed, The Enslaved Man Who Rescued Freedom

Megan Smolenyak

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Lantern of the dome of the United States Capitol, Washington D. C. by Andreas Praefcke

In January 2009, a man who had vanished into the mists of history made a brief reappearance with the historic inauguration of Barack Obama. The man was Philip Reid, and if you google his name along with Obama’s, you’ll find dozens of articles that share the little-known history of Reid, the formerly enslaved individual who made it possible to erect the statue of Freedom that remains on the top of the Capitol dome today. The year was 1863 and Reid had only gained his freedom (by virtue of the D.C. Emancipation Act) on April 16th of the previous year.

Only his name wasn’t Reid; it was Reed. That might seem like a minor detail, but Reid is how his enslaver, Clark Mills, spelled his name. Reed — as in freed — is how he himself spelled it — and when you accomplish something of that magnitude, something that is still noteworthy 158 years later, you deserve to have your name recorded correctly. You also deserve to have your story told, so I decided to see what I could learn about Philip Reed’s life.

The Enslaved Who Built the Capitol

I confess that I had never heard of Philip Reed until shortly before the inauguration. In the weeks leading up to that momentous day, I received quite a few calls from members of the media looking for roots-oriented stories, but one of them in particular caught my attention. Could I learn anything about the enslaved who had built much of the Capitol? That seemed tough or almost impossible since much of the construction was done in the early 1800s and I only had days available for research.

But as I explored the topic online, I quickly came across multiple references to Philip Reid. “Reid,” the accounts said, was enslaved by and worked for Clark Mills as a skilled plasterer in the 1850s and 1860s. Mills’s D.C.-based foundry was given the challenge of casting the statue of Freedom from the plaster model of the sculptor, Thomas Crawford.

The design had been modified from an original version that had the statue wearing a liberty cap. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War and proponent and practitioner of slavery, objected. The liberty cap had been adopted as the “badge of a freed slave” — and given that he was soon to…

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Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)