American history holds few stories more inspiring than that of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, he escaped to the North at the age of 20 and went on to become one of the nation's most powerful antislavery voices. After the Civil War and Emancipation, Douglass continued to champion African-American and women's rights, was a friend to leaders and luminaries here and abroad and served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia and U.S. minister to Haiti.
His accomplishments make him seem larger than life, but Douglass the man is evident at Cedar Hill, his home in southeast Washington, D.C. Unlike many historical houses, here all but the draperies, wallpaper and a few cans in the pantry are original. The contents remain exactly as they were when Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life here. His barbells, sunglasses and wall of books seem as though he just used them.
The white brick house stands on a hilltop 50 feet above its modest Anacostia neighborhood, one of the few integrated areas of the District of Columbia when the Douglasses moved here in 1878. Shaded by ancient oaks, cedars and a magnolia, Cedar Hill looks out upon the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, the sluggish Anacostia River and the Navy Yard. A wrought-iron fence encloses the house's eight grassy acres.
Inside the house, a large oil painting of Douglass hangs in the east parlor to the left. His famous thatch of gray hair is well kept, his skin light. His strong eyes grip you, not with the intensity of a zealot, but the wisdom of a tested leader. It reminds me of pictures of Lincoln in his last days, when the weariness of war tugged at him, yet a confidence and conviction shone through. The portrait shows Douglass at around 65 years of age, when he had lived at Cedar Hill for only five years. His wife, Anna, had died the year before. The daughter of manumitted (freed) slaves, she helped him make his escape in 1838. Then she joined him in Massachusetts, where they were married. By the time Douglass brought Anna to Cedar Hill, their four children were grown. (The fifth, Annie, died at age 11 in 1860 while Frederick was in Scotland in the aftermath of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.) By then, too, the promise of Emancipation had soured with the collapse of Reconstruction, and the plight of African-Americans had fallen under the shadow of Jim Crow laws. The weight of these tragedies registers in his face.
On a tour through the house, it's impossible to miss the pictures of John Brown. The famous abolitionist and Douglass were friends long before Brown garnered national attention for his dramatic raid in October 1859 on the armory at Harper's Ferry, then in western Virginia. Brown stayed with the Douglasses for a month in early 1858 while writing a constitution for the freedmen's republic Brown proposed. Before the ill-fated attack on Harper's Ferry, designed to arm area slaves and help establish the republic, Brown pleaded with Douglass to join in, but he refused, telling Brown he was "going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive." After the raid, Douglass left hurriedly for Europe, tipped off that federal marshals would soon arrest him as Brown's accomplice. Rumor had it that Douglass would hang alongside Brown.
It was the second time Douglass had to flee America. In the early 1840s, while he was still a fugitive in the North, his speeches about his life in slavery were so powerful and eloquent that some thought such an articulate man could not have been a slave. In defense, he wrote the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Published in 1845, it revealed his slave name and owner. Immediately Douglass became the target of bounty hunters eager to return him to his owner and collect a reward. He escaped to Europe where English friends eventually bought his freedom.
Douglass' study is the most intriguing room in the house. Books fill one wall up to the ceiling, many in different languages. He taught himself French, Spanish, German and Italian. Black French writer Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers was his favorite book. Included in his collection of canes is President Abraham Lincoln's, given to Douglass by Mrs. Lincoln after the president's assassination. In this room, he conducted his personal business as well as aspects of his official positions as the U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia and then as the minister to Haiti. In the house's other rooms, he frequently entertained visitors like Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and leaders of the women's suffrage movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Long before others, he believed that the plights of African-Americans and women were tied together. Much of his life was spent campaigning on behalf of women's rights.
Even as he grew older and lived in comfort at Cedar Hill, Douglass never wavered from his commitment to agitate in the face of oppression. A year and a half after his first wife died in 1882, Douglass shocked his family and friends by marrying Helen Pitts, a white woman some 20 years his junior who had worked for him while he was recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. What a commotion those two must have caused, strolling down the streets of Washington, he more than six feet tall, distinguished and black, she not quite five feet, slender and white.
Helen's tireless efforts to honor her husband after his death saved Cedar Hill for posterity. Her photograph is not far from his portrait in the East Parlor.
It's fascinating to stand on the veranda of Cedar Hill where Douglass stood just over a century ago and try to divine his thoughts. He had traveled so far, from a slave in rural Maryland to a wealthy and influential spokesman for the oppressed, who owned this handsome house with its view of the marble pillars of the Capitol. Yet he must have felt the sadness and bitterness of a visionary who sees how far the nation needed to go toward equality.
The dream he so articulately voiced would eventually blossom into the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. His words remain as true today as they were more than a century ago: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
Born a Slave
Frederick Douglass' life began in Washington, D.C.'s neighboring state of Maryland and a world away from his fine house in the District. He was born Frederick Bailey in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, probably in 1818 (slaves often didn't have records of their birthdates). His mother was Harriet Bailey, and whispered rumors and his light complexion said his father was white, but Frederick was never sure who sired him. His grandmother Betsy Bailey, a slave married to a freeman, raised him and all his young siblings and cousins so their mothers were available for work, and Frederick rarely saw his mother. At age six, when Frederick was considered old enough to be of some use, his grandmother took him to his master's house 12 miles away and left him there. Aaron Anthony, Frederick's owner, was plantation manager for Edward Lloyd, and the Lloyds' fine house was a marvel to young Frederick. Playing there with young Daniel Lloyd, he hungered for such a home and, a gifted mimic, began to pick up the Lloyds' pronunciation and speech habits and listen in while Daniel was being tutored.
At the Anthonys' house, Frederick had to sleep in a closet and was often tormented and deprived of food by "Aunt Kate," the black cook and household despot who'd taken a dislike to him. The young boy witnessed beatings and whippings on the plantation, and once he saw a fellow slave shot dead for daring to run while he was being whipped. But there were those among the whites who tried to watch over Frederick. Lucretia Auld, Anthony's daughter, slipped Frederick food and found an opportunity to send him to Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood to help care for the child of her sister-in-law, Sophia Auld.
At age 12 or 13 he took 50 carefully hoarded cents to buy a copy of The Columbian Orator and practiced its fine phrases and sentiments on his friends. He'd heard and read the word "abolition" in his short life but didn't realize its association with slavery until about the time he bought his book. There was hope! Now he understood there were even some whites working to abolish slavery; there was a possibility, however remote, he wouldn't have to spend his entire life as another man's property.
Frederick's teen years were rough. His height, bearing and resentment of slavery made him an unsettling presence in the Auld household. He was hired out to a slave-breaker whose abuse planted the strong desire to escape. At Fell's Point Frederick learned the trade of ship caulking, then convinced his owner to let him hire himself out, paying his own room and board and keeping anything left over. He slowly built up a small sum of money that helped him escape to the North, dressed as a sailor.
He made his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he adopted the name Douglass (at first he'd chosen Johnson until he realized the greater part of his fellow escaped slaves had done the same) and encountered Northern bigotry on the job site. At a church meeting in 1839, he rose to speak against slavery. Abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison put a notice about Douglass' speech in his newspaper, Liberator, and the young black man's life was set on a course toward greatness.
He spoke throughout the North and abroad, became a friend of President Abraham Lincoln and a staunch supporter and campaigner for the Republican Party. He published two newspapers to further the cause of blacks and supported women's suffrage with equal fervor. No one who heard him speak or met him could deny the humanity and intellect of blacks.