Philip Reed, The Enslaved Man Who Rescued Freedom

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This is an updated version of an article that was first published in the May/June 2009 issue of Ancestry (pages 54–56), which has become freshly relevant for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is recent events at the U.S. Capitol.¹

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 become president of the Confederacy, it’s not a surprise that this didn’t sit well with him. He wanted the cap be changed to a helmet and it was.

In 1859, an Italian craftsman, thinking he was the only person in America with the necessary skills to oversee a critical and delicate stage in the creation of the statue, hiked his price. Mills refused to capitulate to the demand, and in an irony that escapes few now, turned to Philip Reed to figure out how to safely separate the sections of the plaster model and cast them in bronze. So it was that an enslaved man rescued the statue of Freedom that now sits atop the U.S. Capitol.

Philip’s Story

While there are quite a few references to “Philip Reid” online, I was surprised to find that his story seemed to end with the installation of the statue. What had happened to him afterward, I wondered? Though the media outlet that had initially inquired demonstrated only limited interest, I was curious, so decided to continue on my own.

The website of the United States Capitol Historical Society told more of the story, showing documents from the National Archives (NARA) and Library of Congress that reveal how we know of Reed’s contribution. From NARA was a petition for payment that Clark Mills submitted in which he valued “Reid” at $1,500 and described him as “smart in mind, a good workman in a foundry.”

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When I later acquired copies of parts of this file not on the website, I found that Mills had gone on to explain that he had purchased Philip as “quite a youth” in Charleston, South Carolina “because of his evident talent for the (foundry) business.”

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The same act that had emancipated Reed also entitled his enslaver to compensation, and Mills was trying to make his case. While reimbursement for freed individuals was usually limited to $300 or so, Reed was brought back for a second examination and valued at $800.

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Under select circumstances, those who were enslaved could be paid, and another document shows that “Reid” received $41.25 for dangerous work — “keeping up fires under the moulds” — he performed on 33 Sundays between July 1860 and May 1861. Reed’s “X” shows that he was given the money on June 6, 1862 — roughly seven weeks after he obtained his freedom and almost eighteen months before the statue was put in place. Some articles that mention “Reid” wonder on the page whether he would have been there on December 2nd when Freedom was erected. Based on what I ultimately learned of him, I’d say so. In fact, he was even buried within sight of his beloved Capitol, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A Little More on Clark Mills

It’s worth detouring slightly to learn about Clark Mills, the artist and sculptor who played such a major role in Reed’s life. A New Yorker by birth, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he married in 1837. By 1850, he had enslaved a then nine-year-old boy. Sometime during the 1850s, he moved to Washington, D.C., where the “U.S. Federal 1860 Census Slave Schedule” showed a leap to nine individuals. By the time Mills petitioned for compensation in 1862, he claimed ownership of 11 people — Lettie Howard and her six children, an older couple named Thomas, a 48-year-old named Ann Ross, and Philip Reid, listed as 42 years old. This, then, was an indication that Philip was born around 1820.

Another interesting file emerged on Footnote in a later claim Mills made in 1864. Restitution could only be made to those loyal to the Union, but a letter purporting to be from Clark Mills, dated December 7, 1861 and sent from D.C., was found in the “Rebel” files of South Carolina. In the letter, he expresses his devotion to his adopted state of South Carolina and proposes setting aside his “favorite art” to make cannons for the Confederacy. The letter was analyzed and deemed to be a forgery, so his claim was spared from outright rejection.

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The incident was not widely known or was summarily dismissed, as Mills eventually died in January 1883, when The Washington Post described his funeral: “The services were very simple, characteristic of the personal life of the great artist, over whose clay they took place. At the request of the family many of the features customary at funerals were omitted.”

From Reid to Reed

Now I turned my attention to the man I thought at the time was named Reid, and the obvious first step in my quest was the 1870 census. I started with the assumption that Philip had probably stayed local. He was skilled in an unusual occupation and Washington, D.C. seemed as likely a place as any to ply his trade.

He popped up quickly, but not without a few surprises. He was listed as Philip Reed, age 50, a married, black plasterer, born in Scotland to parents of possibly foreign birth. And he was unable to read or write. With him were what appeared to be his wife and son and a pair of twenty-somethings — perhaps relatives.

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Scotland perplexed me. I can think of several possible explanations, but the most likely is simply that someone may have jotted “SC” for South Carolina, and that was interpreted by someone else as Scotland. At this point, I hadn’t yet discovered the earlier mentioned documents that pointed to South Carolina, but I reasoned that he was probably from this state, since it was unlikely that he would have been able to acquire such specialized skills so quickly unless he had resided with Mills before his move to the District of Columbia.

The 1880 census bore that suspicion out when it gave South Carolina as his birth place, but his son and wife from the previous census were gone and replaced by a new wife, Mary P. I tried to look for his son in the hope of locating descendants, but no promising candidates were found in the 1880 census, so I returned my attention to Philip.

Philip failed to appear in the 1900 census, so I figured that he had died between 1880 and 1900, but what struck me in the census records I had found is that — though he was illiterate — his name was spelled “Reed” each time. This spelling was consistently found in every post-Emancipation document I was to uncover, so that seems to have been his preference.

Philip’s Life

Trying to fill in some of the gaps between census records, I quickly found his first marriage — at least his first in Washington, D.C. I can’t rule out the possibility that he had a wife and children in South Carolina. 1862 was apparently a watershed year for Philip. Just weeks after gaining his freedom, he got married on June 3, 1862. Now I understood why he sought payment for all those Sundays he had worked on June 6th.

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I also saw that his first wife was Jane Brown, so maybe the Henry Brown living with them in the 1870 census was his brother-in-law, especially given that they had named their son Henry.

Assorted city directories showed Philip at various addresses, mostly in Southwest D.C. But only on one occasion — in the 1891–92 volume — did I see him use a middle initial of “J.”

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What Happened to Philip Reed?

I had narrowed the time frame in which Philip died to 1891–1900, and as he didn’t appear in later directories, I estimated that he passed away in the early 1890s. A search of Washington, D.C. death certificates confirmed that he had died on February 6, 1892. Yet again, it was easy to see that this was indeed the right man as he was a plasterer born in South Carolina. According to the certificate, he had been a resident of Washington, D.C. since approximately 1857.

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The certificate, though, left me with one last mystery: where was he today? It’s a little difficult to make out, but it states that he was buried on the 8th of February in Graceland Cemetery, but “Graceland” is crossed out and a remark saying, “To Harmony June 21, 1895” has been squeezed in.

I’m a former Washingtonian, but no longer live there today. Fortunately, my sister — well accustomed to my unusual history mystery requests — had recently moved back to the area. Stacy went on the trail. What she discovered is that Philip Reed was initially buried within sight of the Capitol as can be seen from this photo taken near the fence where Graceland Cemetery once existed. According to Google Maps, the cemetery was located 1.68 miles from the Capitol.

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On August 3, 1894, an act of Congress was passed and approved by the President to prohibit any further burials in Graceland and to arrange for the transfer of any bodies already interred there. That’s apparently what provoked Reed’s removal to Harmony Cemetery, also known as Harmonia Burial Grounds and Columbian Harmony Cemetery, in 1895. So now he was 3.04 miles from the Capitol. And there he remained until 1959 when Louis and Richard Bell were contracted by the D.C. Government to move the historically black cemetery that had fallen into disrepair. All that remains of Columbian Harmony Cemetery now is a plaque at the Rhode Island-Brentwood Metro Station.

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Philip Reed’s final resting place is Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery, some 7.3 miles from the Capitol. Stacy was able to speak with the cemetery’s historian, Mr. Sluby, who told her that letters were sent to family members of those interred at the older cemetery when the graves were initially moved from D.C. If they responded, new markers were installed, but if not, the bodies were simply reburied without identification. He explained that there were several notable African Americans with statues or markers dedicated to them at the new cemetery, but that the memorials don’t necessarily correspond to where those individuals are actually buried.

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Philip Reed Remembered

Sadly, Philip Reed’s exact final resting place will never be known, although a historical marker was installed at the cemetery in 2014.² But he made a significant and indelible contribution that every one of us can see when we visit the U.S. Capitol — and one that shouts to be known in 2021 America.

¹ I apologize for the use of the word “slave” and other offensive language in the 2009 article. It especially grieves me that this word was in the title, particularly since my intent was to help restore Philip Reed and his contributions to memory. I have done my best to modify this version accordingly and welcome input on how to further improve.

² More about Philip Reed’s story can be found in the last chapter of Here Is Where by Andrew Carroll, and in the forthcoming Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2021) by Professor Erin L. Thompson.

Written by

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You don’t know my name, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (MeganSmolenyak.com)

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