The Biography of Philip Reid

The Biography of Philip Reid


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Oba Ogun carried Olaitan’s body to The Holy City of Ife, the spiritual

capitol of all Yorubaland, for immediate burial, as called for by tradition.


The Biography of Philip Reid

Historical Fiction by Eugene Walton


Slaves made up half of the workforce that built the U.S. Capitol. The most famous of these was Philip Reid, who supervised the bronze casting of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol’s dome. The story of Philip Reid begins with his African heritage, steeped in the Yoruba culture of sculpture and metal casting. Philip’s life as a slave in America is covered in his birth and rearing in Charleston, and his purchase by Clark Mills, the Washington foundry owner who had the contract to cast the Statue of Freedom. This is the story of how Philip, a slave, came to supervise the bronze casting of The Statue of Freedom while enduring the disappointments of American slavery. Philip Reid’s enslavement is ended by the Washington, D.C. Emancipation Proclamation. He becomes a respected member of Washington’s Free Black society, establishes his own business and marries an educated Free Black on the very same day that the Statue of Freedom was raised to the Capitol dome.


When Freedom—the statue perched atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol—was hoisted into place on Dec. 2, 1863, Philip Reid was there, at least in spirit, standing tall and relishing his greatest accomplishment.

Reid was a slave at the Bladensburg Foundry when he supervised the bronze casting of the statue. Shortly after its completion, the District of Columbia issued its own Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery within the capital city and Philip Reid became a free man himself.

This is a true story that belongs near the top the list of Great Chronologies of American History, a story that every American, particularly students, should study and take heart.

The story is best told by Patrick Reynolds in his “Cartoon History of the District of Columbia (The Red Rose studio, Willow street, PA, 1997).

“Thomas Crawford completed the full-size plaster model of Freedom at his studio in Rome, Italy in 1856. When cast in bronze, it would stand atop the Dome of the United States Capitol.

The Model leaves Rome

“In April, 1858, the model left Rome in six crates aboard the ship Emily Taylor. While crossing the Atlantic, the Taylor sprung a leak, which got progressively worse. The Taylor made it to Bermuda and was condemned.

“Freedom was transferred to another ship for the trip to the Mills Foundry in Maryland. The Government had awarded the Mills Foundry a contract to cast the plaster model in bronze and the work began in May 1860. When the casting was almost finished, however, the Foundry foreman went on strike for higher wages, believing he was the only person qualified to see the casting to its completion.

“Clark Mills, owner of the foundry rejected the foreman’s demand and instead turned tot he slave who had been working alongside of the foreman and put him in charge of the final casting. The slave’s name was Philip Reid.

“Philip Reid supervised the remaining casting of the statue in five sections, each weighing over a ton. The tons of Freedom were moved by wagons from Bladensburg, Maryland to Washington. Philip Reid and other slaves put the Statue of Freedom together on the grounds of the Capitol in 31 days during the Spring of 1863.

“On Dec. 2, 1863 the Statue of Freedom was hoisted to the tope of the capitol Dome amid great celebration and a 35-Gun Salute.”

Reid: one among hundreds

Reid was among the last of hundreds of slaves involved in the building of the capitol between 1790 and 1863. They worked in the quarries of Virginia, digging and transporting the stone that became the beautiful building that we so admire today.

At the building site, these slaves 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.

In retrospect, all of us who are aware of this history have an obligation to educate Americans about Philip Reid’s connection to the most prominently placed symbol in all of Washington. We must make sure that each American who peers at the dome will not only see Freedom, but will also know about Philip Reid’s connection to the statue and about the contributions of the many slaves who helped build the U.S. Capitol.

The symbol of our nation and the freedoms we enjoy were not taken for granted by such freed slaves, which bears keeping in mind as we recall black heroes during Black History Month.

—Eugene Walton, Philip Reid: Slave Caster of Freedom,” The Examiner, Washington (1 March 2005)





1.         Philip’s African Past                                                       4


2.         Philip’s Life in Charleston                                              13


3.         Philip Comes to Washington                                         18


4.         Philip Arrives at the Capitol                                           23


5.         Philip Meets the Plaster of Freedom                              27


6.         Philip Takes Charge of Freedom                                   31


7.         Philip Solves Freedom’s Puzzle                                     40


8.         War Stops Freedom’s Casting                                      51


9.         Philip Faces Terror at the Foundry                                59


10.       Philip is Free….At Last!                                               74


11.       No Reparations for Philip                                              97


12.       Freedom Will Be…And So Will We                             116

Excerpt Chapter I

The Biography of Philip Reid

Historical Fiction by Eugene Walton



Philip’s African Past

Philip Reid’s ancestors lived in Onitsha, a small kingdom in the heart of Yorubaland, geographically located in the area now known as Nigeria. Onitsha consisted of five villages which were organized by the type of work performed by its inhabitants. The village of blacksmiths, where Philip Reid’s family lived, was located next to the larger village of farmers on one side and the small village of the police and military on the other. The blacksmiths spent most of their time making axes, hoes and other implements used by the farmers to raise yams, rice, millet and sorghum. They spent most of their remaining time making spears, machetes and other weapons for the military contingent. If they had any time left the blacksmiths were free to create cultural objects that glorified the history of the Yoruba.

The leader of the blacksmiths’ village was Chief Olufemi (“God loves me”), the most senior craftsman in the village who was respectfully called “Baba” (father) by everyone. He was the spiritual father of the village and the biological father of Okpara (“The First Son”) who was also his apprentice in the shop metals shop. Baba and Okpara spent most of their days together because Baba was Okpara’s only teacher, responsible for his total education in both the history and culture of their people and in the theory, technology and techniques of working with metals. Okpara learned about his culture from hours of participating, as a listener, in the oral tradition of passing cultural information from one generation to the next. He learned about metal works by watching Baba use the tools and hot metal and then duplicated what he saw on a trial and error basis. This was followed by stern evaluations and corrections, if needed.

Okpara was a fast learner who seemed to remember everything he was told with no repeats required and he performed every task as instructed with very few missteps. Baba was exceedingly proud of Okpara’s progress, but he was a bit concerned about his aggressiveness in applying what he learned immediately without bothering to get prior approval from his father and shop supervisor. Baba knew that Onitsha was a complex society in which a charging young buck with a lot of talent could run afoul of subtle rules that regulated how its citizens related to authority in the kingdom and to each other. This concern was the main reason Baba tended to limit his son’s projects to simple farm tools and even this under the close supervision of one of the journeyman blacksmiths.

After months of learning and doing simple tasks over and over again Okpara became bored and discouraged with his role and asked Baba for time off to pursue a more challenging project that he had been dreaming of for a long time. Baba agreed without demanding an explanation of exactly what Okpara had in mind. That proved to have been a mistake when he learned, three months later, that Okpara had been secretly casting a small head and symbols in bronze. This was serious because bronze was reserved for casting cultural objects for the Oba (King) of Onitsha, and then only after weeks of proposals and approvals involving high staff at the Oba’s palace and sometimes involving the Oba himself. Having a novice blacksmith striking out on his on without permission or supervision from any authority in the Kingdom sent shivers of fear through the village and placed Baba in a political situation as serious as any faced by a village chief in Onitsha.

Baba was summoned to the Oba’s palace to answer for Okpara’s misbehavior. Sending for Baba instead of the offender himself emphasized the parent’s responsibility for the child’s behavior—no matter how old the “child.”  This was also a cue that the Oba did not consider the offense to be serious. Punishment, if any, was left to the parent after such meetings with the Oba. If the wrongdoer himself had been called to face the Oba the charge would have been considered serious and the punishment, if any, would be ordered by the Oba as a final decision, not subject to appeal.

Baba crawled into the magnificently decorated Hall of Justice where King Olaitan (“Godly blessings have no end”), the Oba of Onitsha sat on a intricately carved mahogany throne chair. The Oba was a short, plump man with an always smiling face. Standing on his left was the Crown Prince Ogun (“Man of Iron and War”), the Oba’s younger brother and “Oba-in-waiting” if anything happened. The Crown Prince was a tall slender man with an always-in-your-face face. The Crown Prince announced the supplicants, the charges against them, and what he recommended as punishment. The Oba would hear the defendant’s side of the story from the defendant or his representative, and make the final decision in the case.

When Okpara’s name was called Baba crawled to the front of the room, facing the Oba and bowing repeatedly. He heard the Crown Prince state the charge (“Playing with bronze without the Oba’s permission”) and his recommended punishment (“ten years of slavery in a faraway kingdom”). Baba trembled when he heard the Crown Prince because he knew the Crown Prince to be unforgiving and hardhearted. He always attempted to “balance off” his brother’s kindness and tendencies of giving the accused ones second chances. (“Godly blessings have no end”).

The Oba began his response to the case announced by reminding Baba that all bronze images belonged to the Oba for decorating the palace. He paused a minute to permit Baba to wipe away the sweat from his brow and the tears from his eyes. “But since your son was attempting to learn about the use of bronze to make objects to bring honor to the Kingdom I will show mercy. His punishment will be stern counseling from his father. You may go,” the Oba told a relieved Baba.

Baba cried in joy and thanked the Oba profusely for his decision and promised that his son would not lose his way by committing such an error again. He bowed a half dozen more times and crawled backwards out of the room.

When Baba returned home it took an hour for him to stop shaking and settle down before chastising Okpara as ordered by the Oba. He tried to make Okpara understand how his act had threatened not only the future of his family but the future of the blacksmiths’ village as well.  He told Okpara about the penalty he would face, ten years of slavery in a faraway kingdom, if he ever again broke the bronze rule again.

Okpara got the point and promised never to get out of line again. He insisted that he was just trying to learn more about the blacksmithing trade. He knew that nobody from Onitsha had ever sculpted and cast a cultural object in bronze and he merely wanted to be the first. Others had tried over the years with the Oba’s permission but they just couldn’t get it right.

“You may become the first successful bronze sculptor,” Baba told Okpara, “but not if you keep making these serious errors in judgment. You have to learn to work within the rules,” he added, as an ending to the “chastisement.”

Baba and Okpara had not fully recovered from the psychological turmoil when another much bigger crisis descended on them, on the village and on the Kingdom. They heard noise and excitement outside the shop. When they went to see what was happening they saw and heard a wailing town crier screaming the news: “THE OBA IS DEAD——LONG LIVE THE OBA.”

Olaitan had died in his sleep during the night. He died of old age—the way everyone in Yorubaland wanted to go. He ceased to be the Oba the moment he drew his last breath. At that instant Crown Prince Ogun became the Oba of Onitsha—the latest in a royal succession that had lasted for a thousand years. The swift automatic change of kings was important because their tradition required that the people of Onitsha not be without the leadership of the Oba for more than a second.

Oba Ogun carried Olaitan’s body to The Holy City of Ife, the spiritual capitol of all Yorubaland, for immediate burial, as called for by tradition. The burial was not a public event but a secret service attended on by Obas. The funeral, the public event, was timed to occur a month after the burial and would last for seven days. In the first public ceremony musicians were hired to accompany the relatives as they moved around the Kingdom drinking gin and dancing at each village stop.

Oba Ogun was of course at the center of the celebrations. At the end of seventh day it was his responsibility to present to the people a gift that would guarantee that the spirit of Olaitan would not fade away in death. The gift was a large bronze image of Olaitan that was so lifelike that children seeing it screamed that the Oba had returned in the flesh. Elders who saw the bronze broke out in song and dance rituals confirming their beliefs that the spirit of Olaitan would forever dwell in the villages of Onitsha.

The bronze was a gift from the Oba of Benin, Yorubaland’s undisputed capitol of bronze sculpturing and casting. Before Olaitan’s body was interred in Ife the Benin craftsmen made a mold of his head. In the next weeks they made a wax model, poured the bronze into the mold and let it cool. When they broke the clay mold away from the bronze mass they found a near perfect image of the man they buried. They destroyed the mold because it could not be used again according to their tradition. They polished the bronze image of Olaitan and prepared it for transport to Onitsha.

With the delivery of the bronze gift from the Oba of Benin came a letter from him to the Oba of Onitsha. The Oba of Benin offered to send one of his most skilled craftsmen to train Onitsha’s blacksmiths in the most effective techniques for sculpturing and casting in bronze. Oba Ogun was very pleased with the offer and sent his acceptance back to the Oba of Benin by the Benin trainer.

Okpara attended the celebrations for Olaitan pretending to be happy as tradition required, but he knew that this change of Obas could well give rise to of fears and uncertainties for the people of Onitsha; particularly for his father and for himself. Onitsha under an Oba Ogun could turn out to be a very different kind of kingdom.

And it did. As soon as the funeral festivities were over Oba Ogun started alerting the people about the military threats they faced from neighboring kingdoms and the need to prepare to defend themselves. This came as a shock and surprise to the people of Onitsha. Onitsha under the late Oba Olaitan coexisted with all the neighboring kingdoms in peace and harmony for thirty years. Onitsha’s military village was supported not so much because it was needed to protect the Kingdom from outside invaders but because it was needed to provide employment for the sons of a few favored chiefs. There weren’t many soldiers and since they weren’t costing  much to maintain the former Oba kept them on.

Most of the village chiefs did not take Ogun’s warning seriously, but Baba learned that this war talk was for real when he was called to the Oba’s palace for a high level security meeting. At this meeting Ogun ordered Baba to change the priorities of the blacksmith shop from making farm implements to mostly making implements of war. The Oba said he would be doubling the size of the military contingent over the next few weeks and he needed new weapons immediately. He did not ask Baba if he or his staff could meet the new challenge—he just said “do it.”

The urgency to make lots of spears and machetes NOW all but cancelled the blacksmiths’ bronze training course offered by the expert from Benin. Ogun valued new weapons a hell of a lot more than new ideas about bronze and was tempted to cancel the course but he did not dare renege on his acceptance of the offer of training from the powerful Oba of Benin. So the show went on for the three days planned with the Benin expert walking Baba and his staff through the mysteries of the “Lost Wax” casting method perfected by the craftsmen of Benin. Baba’s journeymen were in the course because they were ordered to, but Okpara was there because he wanted to be there and he was lapping up every bit of knowledge on display. By the end of the third day Okpara was convinced that he was destined to create in bronze.

The only “creating” that Okpara got involved in after the bronze training was “creating” one machete after another. As soon as one batch of the weapons was finished a soldier picked them up and hurried back to the military village to arm the new recruits being prepared for active duty.  In less than six months time Onitsha’s military contingent was triple its usual size, well trained and well armed, thanks to Baba and the blacksmiths working double shifts in the shop. All that was missing was a war.

Ogun declared war on the neighborly Kingdom of Ogbo, the smallest and weakest society in the region.  There were two other nearby kingdoms Ogun could have picked on, but both of those would have put up a fight and might have made Ogun regret making war with them. Ogbo, on the other hand, was an easy target for what Ogun had in mind.

Ogun had slave trading on his mind. He heard about the high prices European traders were paying for slaves delivered to the ports of the Guinea Coast. From there the slaves were to be transported by ship to a really faraway kingdom called “America—The New World.” The New World had an ever growing need for labor and this ”growing need” sent prices through the roof and had traders scurrying up and down the west coast of Africa purchasing people to fill the “needs” with the approval and assistance of such fraudulent rulers like Ogun.

To succeed in this new capitalism Ogun needed plenty of his  “product” to send to the market on the coast. Ogun’s method of satisfying the market was to send his machete wielding soldiers into the defenseless villages of Ogbo and “arrest” as many men and women as they could move in a group to the coast.

Ogun first defended his aggression with lies about Ogbo intentions to attack Onitsha. When the thinness of that explanation became apparent,” he sought their support by emphasizing that only “foreigners” were being taken and he promised that this policy would never change. But six months later, when prices on the Guinea Coast doubled, the “policy” went out the window and the only people in Onitsha who were safe from being grabbed in the middle of the night were soldiers whom Ogun needed to do the grabbing and Baba’s blacksmiths whom Ogun needed to keep his grabbers well armed.

Ogun tried to justify the grabbing of the citizens of Onitsha with a theory about slavery in “the faraway kingdom” was no different from traditional slavery in Onitsha. “The slaves will be held for only a short time and they will then be set free to make new lives for themselves, just like the way it is here in Onitsha,” Ogun lied.  The children born to the slaves will be born free and cared for by free citizens until their parents released—just like the way it is here in Onitsha,” Ogun lied again.

The part the blacksmiths were playing in Ogun’s farce of a war sickened Baba, nevertheless he carried on under Ogun’s orders. But not so with Okpara who began whispering subversively against slave trading in quiet conversations with the other blacksmiths. Baba was horrified when he found out about the whispers and he begged Okpara to stop it before he got into serious trouble, again, with the most powerful man in the Kingdom. Okpara promised Baba that he would be quiet and suppress his feeling of moral indignation and continue supporting the war. Baba rewarded his new found cooperation by taking him off the fabrication of weapons and putting him in charge of making medals to be awarded to soldiers for their “courageous service” in Ogun’s army. The medals showed an acceptable image of Ogun and were made of solid bronze. The Oba needed as many of the medals as he could get so he could reward more and more of his soldiers when the returned from their trips to the Coast.

Okpara held his nose, so to speak, and turned out medal after medal without protest. Baba knew this was too good to be true so he started checking up on his son’s work—particularly when he noted that Okpara was using more and more metal to and making fewer and fewer medals. When he figured it out he almost regretted that he ever trained Okpara in blacksmithing—Okpara was skimming metal from the military supplies and using it to make small bronze medals with the image of the late Oba Olaitan on one side and the word FREEDOM on the other.

Okpara made no effort to defend his conduct because he knew that he had stepped way over the line and there would be little that Baba could do to save him from the wrath of Ogun. Okpara knew that tradition required Baba to turn him in or the whole village would be made to suffer for his deeds.

Three days after Baba reported the infraction to Ogun’s staff Okpara was still waiting under house arrest—waiting to be called to the palace for his trial before the Oba. That was what would have happened under the previous Oba. Ogun’s “new policy” revoked all rights to hearings in the Hall of Justice—those rights expired when  the previous Oba expired. Ogun’s policy was to “try” the suspects in absentia, find them all guilty, pick them all up in the middle if the night and add them to the next group of slaves being moved to the market on the Coast.

As a professional courtesy to Chief Olufeme (Baba) the military commander did not grab Okpara from his village in the middle of the night. He asked Baba to bring Okpara to a vacant field down the road from the village where three of his soldiers would be waiting to take Okpara into custody.

Okpara and Baba walked most of the way in silence. But when they saw the soldiers they had their final conversation. Okpara told his father that he was certain that he faced an early demise in the New World. “And that will be the end of my love affair with bronze casting.”

Baba begged to differ. He reminded Okpara that “in our tradition there is the expectation that your spirit will rise again through the birth of a newborn, who will pick up your dreams where you left off and take them to heights you never imagined.”

posted 4 November 2006

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Dr. Eugene Walton graduated from the University of Washington with bachelor degrees in Political Science and Journalism. He served as a Personnel Officer in the Air Force before returning to graduate study at Boston University, where he earned the Master’s of Science Degree in Public Relations.

After a year of graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he joined the management staff of the Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, California as Management Research Associate. He resumed his graduate study at the University of Southern California, earning the Doctor of Public Administration Degree.

Dr. Walton served the U.S. Information Agency as Research Officer in Lagos, Nigeria, the Office of the Postmaster General as Management Analysis Officer and the Library of Congress as Coordinator of Affirmative Action Programs he established and maintained contacts with universities throughout the United States. He worked directly with counseling offices and recruited several hundred undergraduate and graduate students into career positions at the Library.

Dr. Walton was Adjunct Professor in the Washington, D.C. programs of the University of Southern California and Central Michigan University.

Dr. Walton’s previous publications include “Programming Your Own Self Image,” “Success-By-Degrees: The ‘no failure’ guarantee” and “Save The Schools; Save the Children.”


“Pay Slave Heirs for work on U.S. Capitol,” Op Ed Opinion, The Daily News (Galveston County, Texas; 11 September, 2001)

“Philip Reid and the Slaves Who Built the Capitol,” Video (25 min.), 2001

Philip Reid and the Statue of Freedom.: An Article from: Social Education [HTML] (Digital)

Black History Literacy Test (Electronic publication, 50 pp.), 2000

“Call the Roll: Heroes in Black History,: Video (20 min.), 1993.

“Rooting Out Racism in Organizations,” The Bureaucrat, Spring, 1973

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 30 October 2009



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