Meet the Biographer: Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton

9781585368198In December, Steven Lapham and Eugene Walton published Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom, a picture-book biography of the enslaved craftsman behind the famous landmark. This week, the co-authors tell the story behind the book.

Kidsbiographer:   How did you decided to write Philip Reid’s story?

Walton: While reading some speeches by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., I met the Philip Reid story for the first time. I was fascinated to encounter this history, but embarrassed that it was new to me. I had just retired from the federal service and was in the market for new projects. I “adopted” Philip Reid and set out to make his recognition by the American public a long-term goal.

Lapham: I’m an editor at the National Council for the Social Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of the northern tip of Washington, DC. One day in 2005, Dr. Walton walked into our offices and told me the Philip Reid story. We published a lesson plan in Middle Level Learning about Reid, and then Dr. Walton said, “This ought to be a picture book.” He was right, and he and I began working on it as our own project. After eight years and eight letters of rejection from various publishers, Sleeping Bear Press accepted the manuscript and found a wonderful illustrator, R. Gregory Christie.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom?

Walton:  I interviewed Bill Allen, then Architectural Historian of the Capitol, and made a video, Philip Reid and the Slaves Who Built the Capitol (28 min., distributed by CustomFlix, 2004).  Dr.  Allen’s remarks are illustrated by photographs that I found in the photo collections of the Library of Congress. That was the start.

Lapham: We acknowledge some of the excellent historical sources, as well as the help we got from reviewers, on the opening page of our book. Both the Architect of the Capitol, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and the National Archives host excellent webpages about Philip Reid and his role. That plaster model of Freedom is the centerpiece at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. As you walk up a grand staircase, you can see it up close from all sides, and you can almost touch it! Philip Reid’s participation at various points in its construction is summarized on plaques at the base of the statue.

Kidsbiographer: Although the picture-book biography contains some moments that convey the horror of slavery, the book emphasizes Reid’s development as a craftsmen. Its matter-of-fact tone actually makes the passages that refer to slavery all the more poignant. For example, when a craftsman purchases young Reid to be his assistant, we learn “When Philip left with Mr. Mills, Philip’s mother sadly sang him a farewell song.” How did you decide to use this approach?

Lapham: At the back of the book, a note explains to our readers that – to bring history to life for young readers – we did invent scenes and dialogue based on what we know about the life of slaves at that time. I’ve visited Washington’s Mt. Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Middleton Place, a historic plantation near Charleston. All of these living museums have excellent exhibits about slave life. Curators explain the history to you. There are many other sources for our book. For example, I attended a workshop at Oberlin College by the Nigerian musician Olatunji (“Drums of Passion” LP, 1960) back in the 1970s, and that gave me the idea of Philip’s mother singing him a farewell song. The Africans who were shipped to this continent in chains brought with them a living culture of oral history, music, dance, worship, and artisan skills. In our book, we had to convey that message using very few words.

Kidsbiographer:  How did you create Reid’s character, and what role, if any, did historical research play in your development of him?

Walton:  With the exception of Congressman Powell’s positive views of Philip Reid as a human being who’s entitled to have his contributions recognized, there wasn’t much in the official records about Philip Reid as person with individual character.

Lapham: A fascinating document from the April 16, 1863 Emancipation in Washington, D.C states that Philip Reid was “smart in mind.” It’s reproduced on the inside cover-pages of the book, front and back. Children and their parents can work together, searching through the hand-written passages line by line. Philip Reid’s name appears three times. I felt sad as I first read that amazing document. In one section, there’s a dollar “value” listed after Reid’s name.  But then I felt grateful that we’ve preserved this window into the past. And it marks a joyful moment in U.S. history – the Emancipation of 3,100 human beings in the City of D.C.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom?

Walton: I hope today’s young readers will not be surprised, in their adulthood, by information on the contributions of slaves in the creation and development of much of this country’s infrastructure.  I hope they, unlike the generations that have gone before them, will know the truth, and I hope the truth will make them free.

Lapham: Dr. Walton is right. Knowing stories from the past gives us more choices and the courage to try some things we might not otherwise have attempted. Kids want to be recognized for the good work they do and for the things they create. There is justice in the fact that Philip Reid – and through him all the unknown black men and women who did so much – begins to be recognized.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Walton:
Last year I completed a short e-Book titled Philip Reid After Slavery. It is not a children’s book, but a book for their parents. This historical fiction focuses on the problems faced by former slaves immediately after the end of slavery, and Philip Reid is challenged to make a new life in Washington, D.C.  While the book imagines his experiences, it is also about the experiences of all Freemen during this period of our nation’s history.

Lapham:
Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) chose our book to be in its 2013-14 collection. With illustrator R. Gregory Christie, I spoke to third and fourth grade students at an RIF event recently. I asked the kids, “How many of you keep a notebook? Not one for school, but one that you jot down ideas in?” More than half of the little hands shot up. I said, “Keep it by your bed and write down your story ideas, jokes you make up, cartoon sketches, words that rhyme, anything. That notebook is your source of projects. Not everything becomes a big project. But that’s where you go for ideas. You can use the rough ideas in there to make holiday cards and funny signs around the house. You can write your own radio drama. You can write your own song and sing it as you walk. You can get some blank paper and a stapler and make your own book today.”

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