|Frederick Douglass, c. 1880 (Source: Library of Congress).|
But how does the District fit in to this picture? Scholars have largely focused on Douglass' early abolitionist years, but in later life, once he was famous and successful, he moved to the District and became a prominent city official, settling in to a charming 21-room country house atop a hill in Anacostia with a commanding view of the city. John Muller, a journalist and native Washingtonian, has meticulously researched the great man's comings and goings in our fair city and collects his insights in his new book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia.
Muller assumes that his readers know who Douglass was and, after a quick glimpse of his childhood, jumps quickly into the whirlwind of his life in D.C. Douglass visited Washington during the Civil War to advise President Lincoln on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army but did not settle here until 1872, following a fire that destroyed his house in Rochester, New York. Originally living in a spacious townhouse on Capitol Hill, Douglass acquired his mansion in Anacostia, called Cedar Hill, in 1877.
|Postcard view of Cedar Hill, c. 1905 (Author's collection).|
|"Colored citizens paying their respects to Marshal Frederick Douglass" from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 7, 1877 (Source: Library of Congress).|
Douglass was in great demand for speaking engagements in addition to his official duties and had other important commitments as well, including serving as the last president of the federally-chartered Freedman's Savings Bank, which closed in 1874. Despite his many commitments, Douglass was also on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, an institution he staunchly supported.
Equally important as his many public commitments was his family life in old Anacostia, then known as Uniontown. Muller fills in telling details about this thriving little community on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard. Clearly the most tumultuous event to occur in Douglass' life on Cedar Hill was the death of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, in 1882. The loss for Douglass was heart-breaking, but two years later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman who had been his secretary when he was recorder of deeds. Muller describes how family, friends, and others in the black community were offended by this move, but the bonds of affection between Douglass and Pitts seem to have been genuine. The two were together until Douglass passed away 11 years later.
|Cedar Hill in 1977 (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).|
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Cedar Hill is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, and it is well worth a visit. John Muller's book, published by History Press, will be available on October 2.