Black News and News Makers in History: Freedom Statue

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes the Freedom Statue on the Capitol dome.On December 2, 1863, "Freedom," the statue on top of the dome of the U.S. Capitol, was put in place permanently.

Philip Reid, an enslaved skilled craftsman who worked at the Bladensburg Foundry, a bronze foundry in Maryland, on the outskirts of what is now Washington, D.C., is credited with finishing the massive undertaking that would result in the display of the statue of Freedom on top of the Capital building.

The story of the statue of Freedom began in 1855 when Thomas Crawford, an American sculptor, was commissioned to design the statue of Freedom. He first created a model in clay in a studio in Rome, Italy, then made a full-sized plaster model cast in five major sections. The plan was to crate the sections, ship them to the United States and cast them in bronze for erection atop the Dome of the United States Capitol, however, in 1857, he died before the model left his studio.

In April, 1858, the model left Rome in six crates aboard the small sailing vessel, the Emily Taylor. During the voyage, the ship began to leak, stopping in Gibraltar for repairs. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship began to leak again. It made it to Bermuda and was condemned. The crates were stored until other transportation could be arranged. Half of the crates finally arrived in New York in December, but all sections were not in Washington until late March of 1859.

The federal government had awarded the foundry a contract to cast the plaster model in bronze and the work began in May, 1860. Work was halted in 1861 due to the Civil War, but by the end of 1862, the statue was finished and temporarily displayed on the Capitol grounds.

An Italian craftsman assembled the huge plaster model of Freedom for all to see while the Capitol dome moved toward completion. This craftsman, however, in an attempt to get more money, he refused to reveal how to take the model apart for transport to the bronze foundry and finish the job.

Philip Reid was called upon to figure out how to disassemble the sculpture into its five large sections without breaking the fragile plaster.

The delicate white plaster model stood 19 feet six inches in height. Its points of separation were hidden by a thin layer of plaster, just like icing can hide the layers of a cake. Reid reasoned that an upward force could be applied to the statue using a block and tackle. As repeated tugs on the model began to strain the plaster, hairline cracks would appear at a point where the top section of the statue was attached to the rest of the sections below. Reid directed workers to carefully pull the ropes and his theory proved correct. Unfastening the top section from the mass below and then lifting it away exposed the hollow interior and the other three points of separation. Finally, five plaster sections sat separately on the floor.

Reid supervised the remaining casting of the statue in five sections, each weighing over a ton (the statue weight over 15,000 pounds in total). The tons of Freedom were moved by wagons from Bladensburg, Maryland to Washington. Reid and other slaves put the Statue of Freedom together on the grounds of the Capitol in a month during the spring of 1863. The cost of the statue, exclusive of installation, was $23,796.82.

Late in 1863, construction of the dome was sufficiently advanced for the installation of the statue, which was hoisted in sections and assembled atop the cast-iron pedestal. On December 2, 1863, the final section (the head and shoulders), was put in place on top of the Capitol dome to a salute of 35 guns answered by the guns of the 12 forts around Washington.

Reid was one of the last of hundreds of slaves involved in the building of the Capitol between 1790 and 1863. Slaves and freed men worked in the quarries of Virginia, digging and transporting the stone that became the beautiful building that stands today. At the building site, they performed the truly backbreaking work required to place the cut stones on the walls of the Capitol building. They dug trenches and ditches, hauled lumber and performed other tasks requiring great strength and stamina. Shortly after the statue of Freedom was positioned, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery.

From: http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/freedom.cfm, http://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/mll24PhilipReid.pdf, and www.anothershadeofcolor.com.