February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by African-American men and women who have made major contributions to America and the rest of the world.
When construction of the U.S. Capitol Building began in 1793, Washington, D.C., was a rural landscape with dirt roads and a small number of boarding houses. The site of the new capital city was located in an area that had few tradesmen necessary to construct such a project. Skilled labor was hard to find or attract to the fledgling city. Engineers and architects were brought in from other areas, but the majority of the work fell upon the laborers in the area, who were comprised mostly of African-American enslaved laborers, who were rented from their owners, were involved in almost every stage of construction and made significant contributions.
These workers brought highly specialized skills in carpentry, bricklaying, ironworking, stone cutting and other trade skills. Laborers quarried the stone used for the floors, walls and columns of the Capitol, sawed both wood and stone, and became skilled in brick-making and laying. Carpentry was also one of the more significant contributions slaves made to the construction of the Capitol as they framed the roof and installed its shingle covering. The federal government relied heavily on the enslaved labor to ensure the new capital city would be ready to receive Congress when it moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800.
One of the most significant contributions by an African-American to the Capitol’s construction was made by Philip Reid, who deciphered the puzzle of how to separate the five-piece plaster model of the Statue of Freedom. Reid was an enslaved laborer in the foundry run by the self-taught sculptor Clark Mills, who cast Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom for the top of the Capitol’s new dome. The only known slave working on the Statue of Freedom, Reid figured out that by using a pulley and tackle to pull up on the lifting ring at the top of the model the seams between the sections would be revealed. The statue was successfully separated into its five sections and transported to the foundry.
On April 16, 1862, Reid received his freedom when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act that released certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia — Reid was a free man when the last piece of the Statue of Freedom that he worked on was put into place atop the Capitol Dome on Dec. 2, 1863. Today, he and countless others are recognized for the role they played in building this monumental and historic symbol of democracy.
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