Do you know about Philip Reed, the enslaved man who put the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol?

Nii Ntreh July 09, 2020
The Statue of Freedom was put atop the the Capitol by the engineering ingenuity of an enslaved black man, Philip Reed. Photo Credit:

Perhaps, with regards to Philip Reed, a good example of the disrupted humanity of people of African descent in American history is that while he spelled his name as “Reed”, official U.S. records say he is “Reid”.

Born circa 1820, a 22-year-old Reed was bought for $1,200 by the sculptor of the Statue of Freedom, Clark Mills. The sculptor was a wealthy Northerner who owned a foundry where Reed learned the craft of sculpting.

Historians agree that Reed’s price tag meant that Mills held his property’s qualities in high esteem. Reed eventually proved he was a smart man which lends credence to the theory that Mills did know what he was paying for.

Mills and Reed together worked on Statue of Freedom.

In 1855, the United States decided that its nationhood was supposed to mark the inception of glorious times for those who fought to be free. At least, this decision was going to be symbolic for white men who fought to be free.

The Capitol building was already built by the time, largely thanks to slave labor. Nearby slave owners were paid $55 a year starting from 1793, to let their enslaved men work on the Capitol.

The discussion of celebration of nationhood and the symbolism of freedom in 1855 concluded that a lasting impression would be a statue atop the Capitol building.

The story of the design of the Statue of Freedom is itself intriguing. When designer Thomas Crawford finalized the initial design, Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the secessionist Confederacy and supervisor of the project, turned down the design because the hat worn by the figure looked like an abolitionist symbol.

Do you know about Philip Reed, the enslaved man who put the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol?
Philip Reed’s plaque at the National Harmony Memorial Park in Maryland. Photo Credit: Twitter

Any disagreement on what black people meant should be settled by the fact that the supervisor of the Statue of Freedom project was incensed about the style of a hat so that it does not look like the symbol of those looking for freedom of black people.

In 1860, another design was agreed upon and the casting of the statue was at a Mills’ foundry.

But after the Statue of Freedom was ready to go up, everyone realized that setting a 19-foot tall artwork on top of another tall building was not going to be easy. Some historians even say there were those who had resigned to the fact that there was no way it could be done.

But Reed came up with a plan: place the five sections of the statue logically on top of the Capitol by a pulley and tackle system. Reed also devised the simple machine that would make this possible.

He was successful. The Statue of Freedom has been atop the Capitol for more than 150 years.

Much is not known about Reed and his photograph was never taken. But in 1865 after the Civil War, he gained his freedom and continued his work as a craftsman.

Reed died in 1892 but his body was interred twice and his final resting place is also not known. What stands now in his honor at the National Harmony Memorial Park is a just small plaque planted in the ground.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: July 9, 2020


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