I didn’t have a plan for the day, not really. I needed to get myself from Richmond to Maryland for a work conference that would start the next day, a friend in Washington, D.C. was celebrating her birthday and it was pissing rain.
I sent my friend a text, asking if she had plans for the afternoon, explaining that yes, I definitely did have time for a birthday beverage or adventure and that I would love to see her if we could make the timing work.
“What parks do you need here?” she responded, knowing I’m on a quest to see all 417 National Park Service units. “Is Frederick Douglass House one of them?”
“No, I haven’t been there yet,” I said, doing a quick search to check their hours, tour times and parking options. “Let’s go!”
So we did.
I picked her up in D.C. and we scampered our way across the Anacostia River to Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, which preserves the house where abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived for the final 17 years of his life.
The house, called Cedar Hill (and sometimes Cedarhill), includes approximately 70% of the home’s original furnishings. As the name implies, the house sits on a hill, overlooking the Anacostia River and the District of Columbia.
Frederick Douglass is one of those incredible historical figures I learned about way back in high school history class. Before visiting his home, I remembered only a few details from his life, mostly that he was a former slave and, later, an outspoken abolitionist. So, in visiting his home, I had a lot to learn.
One of the best parts about visiting the homes of these legendary historical figures is they fill in the details of a life lived, showing you the china patterns they ate from, the desks they worked at, the pictures that covered their walls, the books they referenced. These incredible spaces add color and texture to the flat figures we paged past in school.
WHAT I LEARNED (& REMEMBERED) AT FREDERICK DOUGLASS NHS
1. HE ESCAPED SLAVERY.
The man who would become Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818 as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His mother lived on a different plantation and died when Fred was young. He never knew his father and was hired out as a body servant in Baltimore when he was eight. He worked there for a few years, teaching himself to read and write, until, at 15, he was sent back to the Eastern Shore to work in the fields.
Things did not go well upon his return. He taught other slaves to read, openly rebelled against his master, plotted escapes and physically fought back against a slave-breaker. His master sent him back to Baltimore where he met Anna Murray, a free black woman, and on Sept. 3, 1838, he took the money Anna had given him, disguised himself as a sailor and boarded a northbound train. A day later he arrived in New York and declared himself free.
2. HIS FREEDOM WAS BOUGHT BY BRITISH SUPPORTERS.
In New York, Fred and Anna married, moved to Massachusetts and took the last name of Douglass. Fred started going to abolitionist meetings and soon gained a reputation as an excellent speaker and began traveling around the northern and midwestern states talking about his experiences as a slave.
In 1845, Douglass published Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglass, naming the places and people involved in his enslavement, which jeopardized his freedom. In order to avoid being captured, Douglass went abroad and gave speeches in England, Ireland and Scotland while selling his narrative along the way. After two years, British supporters offered to buy his freedom and he returned to the United States a free man.
3. HE HELPED RECRUIT BLACK SOLDIERS DURING THE CIVIL WAR.
When the American Civil War started in 1861, Douglass encouraged free black men to join the war fight. He even recruited two of his own sons who both served in the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He gave speeches and published letters on the topic of black service in the Union Army and believed fighting for the Union was the same as fighting for black freedom.
4. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE WAS CONTROVERSIAL.
Anna, his first wife, died in 1882 after a stroke. Two years later, he married Helen Pitts, an activist and the daughter of abolitionists. She was twenty years younger than Douglass and white, which shocked even members of the Douglass family.
On her marriage to Frederick Douglass, Pitts said, “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.” She’s credited with the founding of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which worked to preserve both the Douglass home and his personal belongings.
Douglass and both his wives are buried in Rochester, New York, at Mount Hope Cemetery.
5. HE WAS THE MOST-PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN OF THE 19TH CENTURY.
There are more portraits of Frederick Douglass than there are of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass sat for around 160 portraits during his lifetime, dozens of which are in the possession of the National Park Service. As this NPR interview explains, Douglass wanted his picture taken as often as possible in order to provide America with a more accurate portrayal of the nation’s black citizens.
Douglass was also the first African American to hold a government position and was the only black man in attendance at the Seneca Falls Convention.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is located in Southeast Washington, D.C. Admission is free and the historic site is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There’s a small parking lot next to the visitors center and you must be part of a guided tour to enter the the historic home. Tour times are listed here and reservations can be made in advance. Tour tickets can be picked up from the ranger on duty in the visitor center. The visitors center offers a short film which chronicles the life of Frederick Douglass, along with a few displays and a small gift shop.