Friday, September 28, 2012

Cedar Hill

Frederick Douglass' Home  on W Street in Anacostia, DC

Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass became the first African American land owners in Anacostia in Southeast DC when they bought this imposing house on a hill overlooking the city of Washington across the river.

He was 60 years old in 1877 and a successful and famous man when he and Anna moved here. This portrait photo of Anna Murray Douglass hangs in the old  house:

Anna Murray Douglass

Captain John Smith identified the area now known as Anacostia in Southeast Washington as the native village of Nacotchtank in 1608. The Algonquin-speaking Nacotchtanks were allied with the Piscataway confederacy. In 1855, John W. Van Hook, John Dobler, and John Fox paid $19,000 for a tract of land called Chichester that belonged to Enock Tucker and had previously belonged to John Marbury. Van Hook, Dobler, and Fox formed the Union Land Association to develop the property into a housing community they called Uniontown, but the name eventually reverted to Anacostia.  Lots in Uniontown were "for the use, benefit and enjoyment of white persons only," and the deeds  explicitly forbade selling selling or leasing to "any negro, mulatto or person of African blood." They built the brick house on Cedar Hill between 1855 and 1859. Van Hook lived there until 1876-7.  Frederick Douglass bought Van Hook's house in September of 1877 and moved here from his house on A Street. He would live here until his death in 1895; thus he came to be "the lion of Anacostia." During this period, he was Marshal of the District of Columbia, the first recorder of deeds in the District, and U.S. Minister to the Republic of Haiti.

Anna Murray Douglass, whom Frederick had met in 1836 when she was a free woman and he was a slave, died. Frederick married Helen Pitts 17 months later. This marriage was controversial because Helen Pitts was white.

Helen Pitts Douglass

It was Helen Pitts Douglass who preserved Cedar Hill as it is today. When Frederick Douglass died of a stroke in 1895, he left Cedar Hill to Helen, but due to a technical glitch -- there were only two witnesses to the will and three were required -- she shared the inheritance with Douglass' children. She eventually bought the estate back for $12,000 and preserved it for the future. When she died in 1903, she left the house to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association and organization she had founded.

The Association and, after 1916, The National Association of Colored Women's Clubs struggled with the upkeep of the house in hopes of making it a memorial to Douglass.

This sundial is as reminder of NACW stewardship in the 20's.

The Married Women's Culture Club was a prominent  organization of African American women in Pittsburgh.

AUGUST 12 1922

Nannie Helen Burroughs outlined the condition of the memorial house in her newspaper column in 1935.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Home in the capital City of the nation sits in the middle of a weed patch. Its surroundings look more like the wilderness of Judea than like a shrine perpetuating the sacrificial achievements and idealism of one of the greatest men produced on American soil....

If people loved and desired to cherish the name of Frederick Douglass, they would make that fourteen acre plot known as "Cedar Hill" look like Mount Vernon. Washington fought for liberty for the colonists. Douglass fought for freedom for the slaves. One deserves as much honor as the other. The shrine of the one should be as sacred as the shrine of the other to all Americans.
The structure below is the remnant of a "Memorial Arch" built behind the house in the 1930's by "negro public school faculty and pupils" -- See Toogood, 1968.

By 1964, when the National Park Service took over Cedar Hill, it was "in a dilapidated and dangerous condition." The restored house displays many fancy Victorian details like these crab- shaped shutter dogs...

and this front door knocker.

Douglass added these bay windows which expand the room that housed his office.

The interior of the building is largely just as Douglass left it. Here's the interior of his office.

Douglass bought his desk chair from Fisher & Son for $20 in 1873; it was made in 1857 for the House of Representatives and shows the "Sulgrave coat-of-arms of the Washington family" on its back. This NPS photo shows the chair more clearly.

The dining room shows the 19th century upper-middle-class taste that pervades the house.

Frederick Douglass' Dining Room

This statue of Wendell Phillips sits in the west parlor.

This tropical wall paper border in the west parlor reminds us of Douglass' stint as minister to Haiti.

His time in Haiti is also commemorated by this picture by James E. Taylor on the wall in the upstairs hall. It illustrates Douglass' 1871 trip to Santo Domingo. That's Madame Hyppolite standing like a statue in her riding clothes and that's Douglass in the panama hat and riding crop.

The NPS retains the hat in its museum.

The view from Cedar hill is spectacular even on a a drizzly day. The Washington Monument is visible over the Nationals' stadium.

The destroyer USS Barry (DD-933) is named for Commodore Barry, not our mayor-for-life Marion Barry. It's on display at the Navy Yard directly across the Anacostia River from Cedar Hill.

In 2006, the Historic American Landscapes survey piloted a program to identify "Witness Trees" that had lived through historical events. A large old white oak at Cedar Hill was chosen for the program. Designated the Frederick Douglass White Oak, it was the largest tree in DC at the time. Here's John Pliska's photo of the old tree.

I believe this stump is all that remains today of the Frederick Douglass White Oak.

The gardens in front of the house are planted with flowers that host butterflies like this Tiger Swallowtail.

The NPS Visitor Infomation Center offers a number of displays, tour tickets, and a short film about Frederick Douglass.

Mary Todd Lincoln gave this cane to Douglass after Lincoln's death. It is said to have been Lincoln's favorite.

When Frederick Douglass died of a stroke in 1895 after attending a women's suffrage event,  Sculptor Ulric Dunbar made this death mask and hand cast of the Lion of Anacostia.

Perhaps that limp, dead hand is the model for this viril living hand on the statue of Douglass in the Vistors' Information Center. This hand is worn bright by vistiors who can't resist shaking the great man's hand.

The statue highlights a quotation from Frederick Douglass that captures the philosophy that comprehended all those who struggle for freedom and equality.

"to those who have suffered in slavery I can say, I, too, have those who have battled for liberty, brotherhood and citizenship I can say I, too, have battled."

1 comment:

  1. Good morning. Dear Mr./Mrs. I am sending you this email, because perhaps you can help me learn about a sundial that I own from my family. I am sending you a photograph. I would like to know the manufacturer who made this watch. I have seen on your page that there is one like it. Please, if you some of you know the time or the person who made it, it would be important for me to know, because this sundial is a family heirloom. Thank you. God bless you.
    While waiting for his response, receive a brotherly hug.