This is one of the best views of Washington, DC’s skyline belonged to one of our nation’s great heroes – Frederick Douglass.
Douglass was born enslaved in southern Maryland. He escapes and becomes the leading speaker and writer of the abolitionist movement. In addition to his civil rights vocation, he was a newspaper man, world traveler, diplomat, bank president, and a member of the board of Howard University.
Douglass moves to the house he named Cedar Hill in 1878 and it’s where he spends the last years of his life. And they were eventful years. President Ruthford Hayes nominates him as marshal for the District of Columbia, it’s the first time an African American received an appointment requiring Senate confirmation. And he finishes the last of his autobiographies, the Life and Times for Frederick Douglass.
The initial structure was built before the Civil War and Douglass made several additions. And the house says so much about was important to Douglass. It has places for visiting and conversation, lots of space for books, and a private area for his writing and studying.
He paid what is $175,000 in today’s dollars, making it the most expensive house in the District at the time. And by buying the biggest house on the highest hill in a white neighborhood Douglass was making a statement: It was that he was rich.
Douglass’ wife of 44 years, Anna, dies here in 1882. He writes a friend, “The main pillar of my house has fallen.” Two years later he marries Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years younger. Neither family approved of the union. But long before it became a popular slogan, Frederick and Helen knew love is love.
Douglass fights the good fight until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attends a rally in support of women’s suffrage in Washington and returns home to prepare for a meeting at a neighborhood church, when he collapses and dies.
Helen is determined that her husband’s legacy lives on through this house. Helen and Fredrick often visited George Washington’s Mt Vernon and Helen wanted Cedar Hill to become a national memorial to her husband. Douglass’ will leave the house to Helen. But his family contests it and she had to take out a large mortgage to buy out the family. And it is through her work, and that of numerous women, that the house remains intact.
A visit to Anacostia is well worth your time. After you’ve visited Cedar Hill, go next door to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and check out the Big Chair downtown.