The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service, is located at 1411 W St., SE in Anacostia, a neighborhood east of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington, D.C.. Established in 1988 as a National Historic Site, the site preserves the home and estate of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African Americans of the 19th century. Douglass lived in this house, which he named Cedar Hill, from 1877 until his death in 1895. Perched high on a hilltop, the site also offers a sweeping view of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington D.C. skyline.
The museum objects, documents, and photographs featured here showcase Frederick Douglass’ life at Cedar Hill. Douglass lived here from 1878 until his death in 1895. His home provided the backdrop to his active political and warm family life. The spacious estate and well-furnished rooms are a testament to Douglass’ lifelong struggle to overcome entrenched prejudice. His personal belongings, home furnishings, books, photographs of family and friends can be seen in the very place where Douglass and his family used them. They provide a unique insight into his personal and public life, family, home, and interests.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February 1818. He had a difficult family life. He barely knew his mother, who lived on a different plantation and died when he was a young child. He never discovered the identity of his father. When he turned eight years old, his slaveowner hired him out to work as a body servant in Baltimore.
At an early age, Frederick realized there was a connection between literacy and freedom. Not allowed to attend school, he taught himself to read and write in the streets of Baltimore. At twelve, he bought a book called The Columbian Orator. It was a collection of revolutionary speeches, debates, and writings on natural rights.
When Frederick was fifteen, his slaveowner sent him back to the Eastern Shore to labor as a fieldhand. Frederick rebelled intensely. He educated other slaves, physically fought back against a “slave-breaker,” and plotted an unsuccessful escape.
Frustrated, his slaveowner returned him to Baltimore. This time, Frederick met a young free black woman named Anna Murray, who agreed to help him escape. On September 3, 1838, he disguised himself as a sailor and boarded a northbound train, using money from Anna to pay for his ticket. In less than 24 hours, Frederick arrived in New York City and declared himself free. He had successfully escaped from slavery.
After escaping from slavery, Frederick married Anna. They decided that New York City was not a safe place for Frederick to remain as a fugitive, so they settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, they adopted the last name “Douglass” and they started their family, which would eventually grow to include five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie.
After finding employment as a laborer, Douglass began to attend abolitionist meetings and speak about his experiences in slavery. He soon gained a reputation as an orator, landing a job as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The job took him on speaking tours across the North and Midwest.
Douglass’s fame as an orator increased as he traveled. Still, some of his audiences suspected he was not truly a fugitive slave. In 1845, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, to lay those doubts to rest. The narrative gave a clear record of names and places from his enslavement.
To avoid being captured and re-enslaved, Douglass traveled overseas. For almost two years, he gave speeches and sold copies of his narrative in England, Ireland, and Scotland. When abolitionists offered to purchase his freedom, Douglass accepted and returned home to the United States legally free. He relocated Anna and their children to Rochester, New York.
In Rochester, Douglass took his work in new directions. He embraced the women’s rights movement, helped people on the Underground Railroad, and supported anti-slavery political parties. Once an ally of William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, Douglass started to work more closely with Gerrit Smith and John Brown. He bought a printing press and ran his own newspaper, The North Star. In 1855, he published his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, which expanded on his first autobiography and challenged racial segregation in the North.
In 1861, the nation erupted into civil war over the issue of slavery. Frederick Douglass worked tirelessly to make sure that emancipation would be one of the war’s outcomes. He recruited African-American men to fight in the U.S. Army, including two of his own sons, who served in the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. When black troops protested they were not receiving pay and treatment equal to that of white troops, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln to advocate on their behalf.
As the Civil War progressed and emancipation seemed imminent, Douglass intensified the fight for equal citizenship. He argued that freedom would be empty if former slaves were not guaranteed the rights and protections of American citizens. A series of postwar amendments sought to make some of these tremendous changes. The 13th Amendment (ratified in 1865) abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) granted national birthright citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) stated nobody could be denied voting rights on the basis of race, skin color, or previous servitude.
In 1872, the Douglasses moved to Washington, D.C. There were multiple reasons for their move: Douglass had been traveling frequently to the area ever since the Civil War, all three of their sons already lived in the federal district, and the old family home in Rochester had burned. A widely known public figure by the time of Reconstruction, Douglass started to hold prestigious offices, including assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, legislative council member of the D.C. Territorial Government, board member of Howard University, and president of the Freedman’s Bank.
After the fall of Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass managed to retain high-ranking federal appointments. He served under five presidents as U.S. Marshal for D.C. (1877-1881), Recorder of Deeds for D.C. (1881-1886), and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti (1889-1891). Significantly, he held these positions at a time when violence and fraud severely restricted African-American political activism.
On top of his federal work, Douglass kept a vigorous speaking tour schedule. His speeches continued to agitate for racial equality and women’s rights. In 1881, Douglass published his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which took a long view of his life’s work, the nation’s progress, and the work left to do. Although the nation had made great strides during Reconstruction, there was still injustice and a basic lack of freedom for many Americans.
Tragedy struck Douglass’s life in 1882 when Anna died from a stroke. He remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, an activist and the daughter of former abolitionists. The marriage stirred controversy, as Helen was white and twenty years younger than him. Part of their married life was spent abroad. They traveled to Europe and Africa in 1886-1887, and they took up temporary residence in Haiti during Douglass’s service there in 1889-1891.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting for the National Council of Women. He returned home to Cedar Hill in the late afternoon and was preparing to give a speech at a local church when he suffered a heart attack and passed away. Douglass was 77. He had remained a central figure in the fight for equality and justice for his entire life.
The site of the Frederick Douglass home was originally purchased by John Van Hook circa 1855. Van Hook built the main portion of the present house soon after taking possession of the property. For a portion of 1877 the house was owned by the Freedom Savings and Trust Company. Later that year Douglass purchased the home and eventually expanded its 14 rooms to 21, including two-story library and kitchen wings. The house has an “L” shape and its plan is reminiscent of the design of Andrew Jackson Downing.
With the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Douglass hoped for a political appointment, likely postmaster for Rochester, New York or ambassador to Haiti. Instead, he was appointed marshal for the District of Columbia, a role which he accepted. His appointment to this highly visible position marked the first time a black man successfully received a federal appointment requiring Senate approval. Douglass, however, was not asked to fill many of the roles expected of a marshal. Typically, the marshal would attend formal White House gatherings and directly introduce guests to the President. Douglass, excused from this role, later complained that he should have resigned because of the slight. Still, the job brought him financial stability and, in 1878, he purchased the 20-room Victorian home on nine acres which they named Cedar Hill. He bought an additional 15 acres around the property the next year.
In the home, Douglass became a cultivated member of high society. He and his grandson Joseph played the music of Franz Schubert in the west parlor which served as music room. Here he also worked on what would be his last autobiographical book, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, first published in 1881 and reissued ten years later. His wife Anna had a stroke in 1882 which left her partially paralyzed; she died on August 4 and Douglass became depressed. “The main pillar of my house has fallen”, he wrote to a friend.
In January 1884, Douglass applied for a marriage license at District of Columbia City Hall before heading to the home of Reverend Francis James Grimké and Charlotte Forten Grimké, where he married a white woman named Helen Pitts. The marriage, held January 2, was not approved by most members of either family. Helen’s father, an abolitionist who was previously proud to know Douglass personally, never offered his blessing and refused to visit Washington unless he knew his daughter and her husband were out of town. Douglass had hired Pitts as a clerk in 1882. She was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and had been a teacher of freed blacks in Virginia and Indiana. Interviewed about her marriage, she responded, “Love came to me and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.” One newspaper article noted, “Goodbye, black blood in that family. We have no further use for him. His picture hangs in our parlor, we will hang it in the stables.”
On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a women’s rights rally in Washington and was escorted to the platform by Anna Howard Shaw and Susan B. Anthony. He returned to Cedar Hill for an early supper and intended to attend a neighborhood black church. As he was telling his second wife Helen about one of the day’s speakers, he suddenly collapsed.
After Douglass’s death, his widow, Helen Pitts Douglass, founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in 1900. In 1916, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs joined with the association. These groups owned the house until 1962, when the federal government took the deed to the house through the National Park Service, with the intent of restoring and preserving it.
Also on site are an interpretive visitor center and a reconstruction of Douglass’s “Growlery”, a small stone building in which he secluded himself while writing and studying.
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is located about a ten-minute walk from the Anacostia Metro station.
In 2017, the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site is scheduled to be depicted on the thirty-seventh quarter in the America the Beautiful Quarters series.
rederick Douglass’s library is a special place. Lit by three large windows, books on almost every imaginable subjects fill the many bookcases. Off to the side, a black iron stove promises cozy warmth on cold days. In the center of the room, a heavy wooden desk sits awaiting the author’s next great sentence. Douglass was a true man of letters, and his ideas seem to fill the room. It is a place where, if you close your eyes and reach out your hands, it seems almost possible to touch the mind of Frederick Douglass.
A visit to Cedar Hill is a wonderful way to experience Douglass’s ideas. However, a tour of the house doesn’t allow for a close inspection of the titles in the library’s bookcases.
Fortunately, we now have searchable lists of all the books and booklets in the National Park Service’s collection. They may not be complete lists of all the reading material that Douglass ever owned, but we believe they cover the vast majority. We hope you have fun exploring his books and that you check back often! We hope to eventually post additional lists of his pamphlets and music.