Among many Hill staffers, the opportunity to lead a tour of the U.S. Capitol is considered not only a rite of passage but a privilege as well.
That's why Kwasi Agyeman, a junior staffer for Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), jumped at the chance to share the history of the storied federal building with visitors to the nation's capital. Agyeman soaked up information about the Capitol's history, like a sponge, however, he said the more he learned, the more disillusioned he became. There was very little mention about African Americans discussed during the tours, he said.
"I immediately [recognized] that there was a rich African-American history that no one talked about," during the tours, Agyeman, 22, said.
"So I thought that I could give a tour and showcase [African-American] history," he said.
The George Washington University undergrad kicked off the inaugural Philip Reid Capitol Tour last weekend. The 90-minute tour featured African-American figures who have made significant contributions and played an integral role in American history. Students who attend universities throughout the District showed up to support Agyeman's efforts.
Agyeman named the tour in honor of Philip Reid, an enslaved artisan who played a crucial role in the completion of the Statue of Freedom in the spring of 1863 after a white construction foreman decided to strike because he wanted higher wages. Reid assembled the plaster casting of the statue and moved it to a foundry where molders poured molten metal into the casting to create the grand dame, which represents freedom for all people. The statue was hoisted atop the Capitol dome at the end of 1863. Reid's story motivated Agyeman to organize the tour with a focus on the artisan and other African Americans who made unique contributions to American history.
"This was a guy who was owned by the construction company and [turned out to be] the cornerstone of the Capitol's construction," said Agyeman who lives in Northeast. "He is the reason why we had the Statue of Freedom. It's time to celebrate African Americans who have made a great impact on our country."
Agyeman and another U.S. Capitol tour guide gathered a small group around a replica of the Statue of Freedom, on display in the Visitor Center, and then led them through the crypt of the Capitol and the Rotunda. Unlike other tour groups in the building, Agyeman's group had an opportunity to see the room where the Amistad case and Dredd Scott decision unfolded. The group of 15 visitors also gathered around a statue of Frederick Douglass and learned about his plea to President Abraham Lincoln to allow slaves to fight for the Union during the Civil War.
Visitors also learned about Jacob Joseph Chestnut, a U.S. Capitol security officer and military veteran who was killed defending the Capitol against an armed intruder in 1998. The tour concluded with a discussion about the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia.
Brandon Floyd, a Georgetown University student who took the tour, said that he enjoyed it and the discussion that followed afterward. He said that he might not have learned about Reid and others had he taken another tour.
"I felt really good learning about Philip Reid and his contribution to the Capitol," said Floyd, 21 who hails from Baltimore, Md. "It was also good looking at the busts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sojourner Truth and learning about the history behind the busts."
At a time when many question the relevance of Black History Month, Tyler Dueno, a George Washington University student and Agyeman's colleague on the Hill, said that he hopes to see more tours of this type in the future. He would especially like to see them geared toward college students.
"We need something like this to bridge the gap between reality and what we read in history books, said Dueno, 22, who comes from Bridgeport, Conn. "I think that the best thing is getting GW and other schools in the area involved and coming here to see how African Americans have shaped this country instead of hearing about it in school."
This article by Sam P.K. Collins, also appears in the Around the Region section of the Feb. 28-March 6 edition of The Washington Informer.