Wrong turn leads in the right direction: Frederick Douglass Part I

“Don’t go into southeast. Especially Anacostia.” That’s what everyone told me when I first moved to Washington DC in the 1980s. And though I got tremendously lost on many occasions, I rarely made it past South Capital Street. So a couple weeks ago when I got stuck in spring break traffic and decided to exit the non-moving highway to cut through to another route, I was not pleased to realize that I was driving around southeast DC. And then I started seeing signs labeled “Anacostia.”

I don’t have GPS and my map was a little vague when it came to listing street names. So before too long we were lost. In Anacostia. In a minivan. I expected to explode from sheer stupidity.

However, my sixteen-year-old son, who was driving, wasn’t concerned. “It can’t be any worse than Baltimore,” he pointed out.

How do you think neighbors reacted when Frederick Douglass married his second wife, Helen?

How do you think neighbors reacted when Frederick Douglass married his second wife, Helen?

And he was right. Anacostia, or at least the parts of it we drove through, looked like a pretty nice neighborhood. It was, however, still a neighborhood without any streets that matched my map, so I wasn’t really enjoying my tour of the area. Then I found a landmark that was on my map and we followed signs to the Frederick Douglass House. And there it was, a beautiful 19th Century house on top of a grassy green hill wreathed in flowers. Not exactly what I was expecting.

The house and visitor’s center are operated by the National Park Service. While the very helpful park ranger at the front desk of the visitor center poured over a map to figure out how to direct me to the road I was looking for, I grabbed a brochure and started reading. If only we hadn’t had 580 miles still to drive in our 600 mile journey, I would have toured the house and grounds right then. Instead, I made a promise to myself to come back and decided to write my first blog about a historical site that I’ve not yet seen.

The Frederick Douglass House in Anacostia is Cedar Hill. At the time Douglass and his first wife bought the house in 1877, the neighborhood was “whites only.” When I come back to tour the house, I hope to learn more about how the neighbors treated the Douglass’s. By that point in his life, Frederick Douglass was somewhat of a celebrity, having served as an adviser to Lincoln, launched his own newspaper and written two autobiographies. At the time he bought Cedar Hill, he was also beginning a term as U.S. Marshal in DC. So did the neighbors embrace his celebrity status? Or was he just not good enough? I hope to find out when I return.

Before my not-really-a-visit to his house, I had not known much about Frederick Douglass except that he was born in Maryland, worked in Baltimore, escaped to freedom and became very active in the abolitionist movement. That never struck me as remarkable, since it seemed natural for a man to speak out against the forces that have oppressed him. What I didn’t realize is that Douglass also worked tirelessly to further causes beyond his own realm. While in Europe on the run from slave hunters, Douglass championed the cause of Irish home rule. He worked to help the poor throughout the world, and when back in the United States (after English friends purchased his freedom) he became an advocate for women’s rights. After his first wife Anna passed away, Douglass married fellow activist Helen Pitts, who was white. What did the neighbors think of their mixed marriage? I’m hoping to find out more about that, too, when I visit.

I also want to find out what the “Growlery” outside is.

Don’t wait for my report. Visit the site yourself, even if only online at www.nps.gov/frdo. But don’t be afraid to visit the actual site in Anacostia, even if you’re driving a very suburban minivan. It’s a lovely neighborhood. And you can always get directions home.

 

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