Justice in the Capitol: The Philip Reid Room

Ken Blackwell

6/17/2010 12:01:00 AM - Ken Blackwell

I had an extraordinary experience today. I was welcomed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the U.S. Capitol. She was greeting those guests who had come to honor the memory of the slaves who contributed immeasurably to building this Temple of Freedom. I sat with my longtime friends—former Congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Republican National Chairman Michael Steele.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)—who marched with Dr. King for civil rights in the 1960s—spoke movingly of the role of those enslaved black Americans who toiled through Washington’s sultry summers and through those bitter cold winters. These slaves worked for $5 a month. That money was paid not to the slaves themselves, but to their masters! The very foundations of our U.S. Capitol were put in place by hands that bore the cold manacles of bondage. It’s a stirring story which John Lewis—who felt the lash of the segregationists on his own back—told with eloquence.

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Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) co-chaired the House-Senate committee that made possible today’s ceremony. She and J.C. Watts unveiled plaques honoring the labors of those American slaves. For two hundred years, Sen. Lincoln reminded us, there had been no recognition in the Capitol of the work of the slaves.

The high point of today’s event had to be the telling—and telling over and over—of the story of Philip Reid. This young black man had worked for sculptor Thomas Crawford. When the Statue of Freedom that Crawford crafted in his studios in Rome eventually came to America from Italy, the plaster cast had been disassembled. Crawford had died. A dispute on these shores caused a crisis. How to re-assemble the cast so that a bronze statue could be fashioned?

None of the free citizens of Washington knew what to do. But Philip Reid knew. He showed how to rig a block-and-tackle and the workers very slowly tugged at the plaster cast until the first seam was revealed. He did this for each of the five successive sections of the Statue of Freedom.

Thanks to Philip Reid, we now have this magnificent 19-foot monument that stands majestically atop our U.S. Capitol dome. She was put in place in time for President Lincoln’s Second Inauguration. By the time that statue came to stand on her lofty pedestal, Philip Reid and his brothers in toil were free men.

Several of the speakers—Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) re-told the Philip Reid story, or portions of it. That’s actually good and long overdue. The silence of the centuries now yields to a swelling chorus of the Union. Today was one of those rare moments when Republicans and Democrats, Americans black and white, could come together for justice.

I was proud to be a part of history today. But I have one suggestion: we should re-name the Rayburn Room where we met today the Philip Reid Room. There was some confusion getting to the ceremony, since there is already a Rayburn House Office Building just across Independence Avenue. It would be no disrespect to the already greatly honored Speaker Sam Rayburn at long last to give Philip Reid his due.

In that way, we can honor this respected artisan, his labors, and the labors of all those black Americans who worked to build up this Temple of Freedom.