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Douglass House another D.C. stop to make

Posted: May 30, 2014 12:14 p.m.
Updated: June 2, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Not long ago, I wrote about my sons and I taking our “Cahn All-Boys 2014 Spring Break” trip to see my father outside Washington, D.C.  In that column, I talked about visiting College Park Aviation Museum in College Park, Md., and how I was inspired to think about getting a similar museum built -- someday -- here in Camden at Woodward Field.

I’ve had some nice responses to that column and I promise to get back to that idea in the near future. Today, however, I want to tell you about another of the stops my father took us to: the Frederick Douglass House in D.C.’s historic Anacostia community on the city’s southeast side at 1411 W St. SE, Washington, DC 20020.

The house is atop Cedar Hill, sufficiently above the nearby Anacostia River to give a great view of the nearby U.S. Navy ship yard and downtown D.C.

Frederick Douglass, of course, is the famed abolitionist. The geography of Cedar Hill allowed the National Park Service to build a very small museum and gift shop into the bottom of the hill underneath the house. There, you can read about how he was born in slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, how he escaped from slavery in 1838, how he began preaching and, later, wrote his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” in 1845.

Persecuted and fearing his old master would try to get him back, Douglass fled to Ireland and Britain where, he wrote, he was amazed by the feelings he felt, free of discrimination. He became legally free while in Britain and returned to the U.S. a short time later.

Even before the Civil War, he advocated for women’s rights. According to one thing I read, he was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention where he is credited with moving those in attendance to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage with these words:

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of women and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

He reportedly told the assembly he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women couldn’t also vote.

Frederick Douglass met and became friends with abolitionist John Brown, but did not agree with his more militant plans. Many people remember Brown for the debacle at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. What many may not know is that he invited Douglass to go with him. If he had, it is likely Douglass would have suffered Brown’s fate of execution.

Douglass would meet with presidents Lincoln and Johnson on black suffrage. He was joyous over Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation but disappointed Lincoln didn’t publicly endorse blacks having the right to vote. He still ended up referring to Lincoln as the “greatest president.”

By 1872, Douglass was nominated for the vice presidency with presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Ironically, he was nominated without his knowledge, and did not campaign.

For many years, Douglass lived in Rochester, N.Y. He and his first wife, Anna, had five children. Anna died in 1882. Douglass remarried two years later to Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years his junior. As a film at the museum explained, the second marriage caused a lot of friction with his children (and with Pitts’ family). He pointed out, however, that his biological father was likely his mother’s master and, therefore, he was half-white himself.

By this time, Douglass received an appointment from President Rutherford B. Hayes to become U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia. He lived in other parts of D.C. before buying what would become Cedar Hill, expanding the house from 14 to 21 rooms.

Pitts, who obviously loved her husband and felt his life and work were important, actually bought the house from her stepchildren. She founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in 1900. Sixteen years later, the group joined with the National Association of Colored Women’s Club’s and owned the house until 1962 when it was deeded to the National Park Service (NPS).

The amazing thing about the house is that, according to our guide -- and thanks to Pitts -- it has been maintained very nearly as it was when Douglass died. The guide indicated that there are more objects original to the house and its owner (Douglass) than, perhaps, any other NPS-owned site.

Also on the site is Douglass’ “Growlery,” a small, one-room stone building where he liked to seclude himself to write.

Cedar Hill is beautiful, interesting and full of surprises. Most of all, however, it serves as a physical reminder of the remarkable life of Frederick Douglass, a man all Americans should cherish for his determination to make sure all men and women in America would be treated equally, especially when it came to voting.

Visiting Cedar Hill was especially poignant for me, my father and my boys. My father and I are of Jewish descent and understand the plight of the persecuted. My sons are African-American, either in whole or in part and, therefore, should be exposed to the extraordinary men and women who have fought for all our freedoms in whatever way they felt best.

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