Behind the Statue

9781585368198Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom
By Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2014, Ann Arbor, Michigan, $16.99)

The Statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. owes its existence in large part to an enslaved African-American, an irony lost on those who commissioned the statue. Assistant to a famous sculptor and a skilled craftsman in his own right, Philip Reid was the only person able to disassemble the plaster model of the statue so that it could be transported to a local foundry and set in bronze. During the casting process, Reid worked seven days a week at the foundry, monitoring its fires. By 1863, when workers mounted the statue to the Capitol Dome, Reid was a free man.

In Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom, Steven Sellers Lapham and Eugene Walton tell Reid’s remarkable story. Although historians know little of Reid’s early life, Lapham and Walton imagine his childhood based on their knowledge of plantation life. Readers see Reid separated from his mother and sold to a sculptor. Despite the enormity of this loss, the authors do not dwell on the sorrows and injustices Reid suffered – or the absurdity of his involvement in the Statue of Freedom. Instead, they matter-of-factly relate his development as a craftsman, a journey that culminates in his work on the famous statue.

R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations convey the pain of slavery and the wonders of Reid’s work. In one spread, an elderly man shows the young Reid skills he learned during his West African childhood; his eyes are moist with memory. Another illustration shows workers pouring liquid bronze at the foundry; it glows red in the dark room. Readers will see why Reid’s craft entranced him despite his enslaved status.

The front and back inside cover of Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom shows the petition Reid’s owner used to request compensation for him from the US government after the District of Columbia emancipated all slaves in 1862. Seeing human beings described in monetary worth should chill adults and older children even while the picture-book biography illuminates a little-known irony in our country’s history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


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