After a busy five days at the National History Day contest in College Park, Maryland it was nice to have a break and get to do some sightseeing and try out my new digital camera. When the awards ceremony concluded on Thursday I took the Metro train down to Anacostia to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in southeast D.C.
If you have been to D.C. you might know that the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers kind of form the base southwestern and southeastern boundaries of the city from Virginia on the Potomac side to Maryland on the Anacostia side. The Frederick Douglass House, "Cedar Hill" is poised on what I was told was the second highest point in the area.
After being dropped off by the bus on W Street I walked less than a block to the site's Visitor Center which is seemingly carved into the side of Cedar Hill. I was surprised and pleased to find that not only was admission to the Visitor Center free, the tour of the house was as well. Inside the center there were some small exhibits on the life of Douglass and a wall of famous and significant quotes. There was also a small gift shop with a good selection of books on Douglass and African American history.
The Visitor Center shows a film that lasts about 20 minutes or so and provides a very brief but good overview of Douglass' full and productive 77 years. Although the film was probably made in the late 70s or early 80s, and is certainly dated in its production, it does give the visitor a good sense of the man and all that he accomplished.
I was told my tour would begin at 3 PM and to meet on the front steps of the house. I made the walk up the hill a little early to get some pictures of the house and to get a feel of the environment. When I visit historic sites I like to try to do just that; get in the "feel" of the place. The view from the front steps was amazing. Although the scenery had changed drastically since the days of Douglass, one can imagine the peaceful feeling that such a setting provided. The high placement of the house also provided a nice breeze that I am sure Douglass appreciated as much as I did.
Our tour guide, Ebony Davis, provided a wonderful tour of the house. The house that Douglass would come to call Cedar Hill had been built in the late 1850s. Douglass moved there with his wife Anna in 1877, when he was nearly 60 years old. As we went through the house room by room I really got a sense of Douglass and what he liked. Ms. Davis informed us that about 70 percent of the furnishings currently in the house are original Douglass family pieces. Seeing things like his beloved violin, leather rocking chair, his library work desk and hundreds of books, all show how far this man had come from his days as a Maryland slave.
Douglass seemed to have enjoyed having images and reminders of those that had worked in the abolitionist and equal rights causes. I saw pictures of Wendell Phillips, Blanche K. Bruce, John Brown, Charles Sumner, and Garrit Smith, among a host of others scattered on the walls throughout the house. I also noticed a framed picture of the the steamboat "Planter" that Charleston, South Carolina slave Robert Smalls piloted out to the blockading Union forces during the Civil War.
Ms. Davis pointed out the wealth that Douglass accumulated during his later years by his speaking engagements. During these years he became known as the "Sage of Anacostia," and was sought out by many younger men for his keen insight and advice. She also explained that he always took special care to be dressed well; image was important to Douglass.
In 1882 his wife Anna passed away. He would not allow anyone to enter her room in the years after her death, even when he remarried 18 months after. His marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman, was controversial not only in D.C. society, but also in his own immediate family. Douglass basically explained to his family that he didn't see color, only the person the person he loved when he looked at Helen, and if they didn't like it, that was too bad.
Frederick Douglass passed away on February 20, 1895 after attending a women's rights rally. Douglass had championed equal rights for women for almost his entire career as an orator. His second wife Helen preserved Cedar Hill as a memorial to her husband. In 1900 she organized the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, and in 1916 it combined with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. In 1962 the home was deeded to the National Park Service who currently cares for the house and grounds.
If you want to learn more about Frederick Douglass the man, I don't think there is a better place to do that than "Cedar Hill." It is easily accessible by the Metro train and bus services and the friendly NPS staff ensures that your visit will be both educational and enjoyable.