District of Columbia: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The house and grounds, which Frederick Douglass renamed Cedar Hill, served as the domicile and office for this former slave, author, orator, abolitionist, and political activist during the last years of his life.

Site Office

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

1411 W Street SE

Washington, DC 20020-4813

ph.: (202) 426-5961

Web site: www.nps.gov/frdo/

The original house was designed and constructed by an architect and contractor named John Van Hook between 1855 and 1859. The estate consisted of a large, whitewashed frame residence and seven outbuildings on nine acres, the residence being perched, facing the street, on a slight incline or “hill.” The site was originally called Van Hook’s Hill, but when Frederick Douglass purchased it in 1877 for $6,700, he changed its name to Cedar Hill, after the trees growing in the area. Apart from the time that he served as United States envoy to Haiti and the two years he spent on a trip abroad, Cedar Hill would be his fixed residence.

Out of Bondage

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on the Lloyd Family Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. The exact date is uncertain, and even the year, 1818, was not known until after his death–Douglass himself had always believed he was born in 1817. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave; she died before Frederick reached the age of seven. The identity of Frederick’s father remains unknown to this day, but it is generally suspected that he was the Lloyd Plantation’s overseer, Aaron Anthony.

Until the age of seven, Frederick lived with his grandmother, Betsy Bailey; he rarely saw his mother, who worked on another plantation at the time. Then he was sent to work on the farm. After a year he was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh and Sophia Auld, in-laws of Aaron Anthony. Sophia Auld began to teach Frederick to read and write until her husband ordered her to stop. By Frederick’s own account, however, this incident awakened in him a desire to complete his education and use it to become free; he built upon what he had been taught by Mrs. Auld secretly to advance his knowledge and skills.

In 1833, Frederick passed to Hugh Auld’s brother Thomas, who sent him to a slave-breaker named Edward Covey so that any spark of independence in the young man would be destroyed and he would be prepared for life as a field hand. A lengthy battle between Douglass and Covey resulted in a physical struggle that neither man could win but ended with Douglass declaring that he would never again be beaten or broken. Covey concealed his failure by sending Douglass back to Thomas Auld without revealing the true outcome of the struggle. Douglass considered this incident to be one of his life’s major turning points.

During the next few months, when Auld had Douglass “farmed out” to a small planter named William Freeland, he enjoyed a greater degree of latitude and less intensive supervision. His literate skills had developed to the extent that Douglass was able to teach other African Americans to read and write; he also held Sunday school sessions devoted to Bible studies. However, when he laid plans to escape and was discovered, Auld sent him back to Baltimore, where he was apprenticed to a shipbuilder, William Gardner. Despite being kept on tighter reins, Douglass met a free black woman named Anna Murray; the two fell in love and plotted Frederick’s escape. Since Auld had appropriated nearly all of Frederick’s wages, Anna gave him money and, disguised as a sailor, he made good on his flight to New York City. Anna arrived later; they were married and soon moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. As a symbol of his new life of freedom, Frederick changed his surname from Bailey to Douglass after a character in the popular novel The Lady of the Lake (1810) by Sir Walter Scott.

Early Activist Career

Just because Douglass had escaped from the South did not guarantee that he was safe. The Constitution of the United States contained a “fugitive slave” clause that legalized the pursuit and apprehension of escaped bondsmen no matter where they were within the United States. (This clause was contained in Article IV, Section 2, and has since been made null and void by the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.) Slave owners could and did hire bounty hunters to find and capture fugitives such as Douglass and transport them back to the South. In spite of this, Douglass’s acute sense of justice and moral indignation over slavery and other inequities in American society led him to become active in the abolitionist movement and–in the larger context–sweeping social reform. To go public–to call attention to himself in that manner–was very dangerous, but Douglass chose to become that most visible of reformers: a charismatic orator who employed both moral biblical precepts and liberal constitutional principles to present the antislavery cause to diverse audiences throughout the North.

In 1841, at the request of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass went on a well-publicized speaking tour sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and immediately became a national figure. Stung by charges that he had lied about having been held in slavery, Douglass wrote his first autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). Learning of a conspiracy to kidnap him back into slavery, Douglass journeyed to England to tour, speak, and agitate for the antislavery cause. On December 12, 1846, two British supporters, sisters Ellen and Anna Richardson, raised the money officially to buy Douglass his freedom.

In the years prior to the Civil War, Douglass became increasingly radical in his philosophy and firmly established himself as an independent voice. He broke with the predominately white mainstream of the abolitionist movement by founding his own newspaper, The North Star, in 1847 in Rochester, New York. Renamed The Douglass Monthly, the paper ran until 1863; within its pages Douglass advocated women’s rights and Irish self-government and even justified revolution as a means of achieving emancipation.

A second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published in 1855. His stance on violence and his association with John Brown (though he disapproved of Brown’s uprising at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and took no part in it) put him under suspicion of treason, and he spent some time in exile in Canada and England until his name was cleared.

Civil War

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass threw his efforts into supporting the struggle against the Confederacy. Though he had supported the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln for president, he often found himself at odds with the president over the final objectives and conduct of the war. Lincoln insisted that the struggle was only about saving the Union and remarked that if he could preserve the United States without freeing a single slave, he would do so. In the months between Lincoln’s inauguration and the firing on Fort Sumter that began the war, Douglass had been deeply disappointed by the president’s attitude and even considered immigrating to Haiti and urging African Americans to follow his example.

African Americans for the Union army came forward from the beginning, and units were actually formed in Albany, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The president ordered that they be disbanded and consistently rejected the idea of African Americans officially serving in the U.S. armed forces. Lincoln’s position initially revolved around the idea that, after the war, the slaves would be emancipated gradually, with compensation to their masters, and then be compelled to “resettle” in Africa or Latin America. When the president proposed this plan on August 14, 1862, Douglass led the opposition, emphatically rejecting the notion of colonization and charging Lincoln with hypocrisy.

Douglass himself urged Lincoln toward a policy of more immediate emancipation and the acceptance of African American recruits into the Union army, and Lincoln had relented on both issues by early 1863. Douglass himself was active in recruiting black soldiers for the Union cause, and his sons Charles and Lewis served in the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

Final Years

Following the war, with the collapse of the Confederacy and Reconstruction proving to be a failure, Douglass continued to battle for the guarantee of citizenship rights for African Americans, noting that despite the fact that slavery had been abolished, racism and discrimination were still very much in evidence throughout both the North and the South. Douglass viewed the beginnings of the Jim Crow system in “de-Reconstructed” Southern states as being especially alarming.

On June 2, 1872, the Douglass home in Rochester was gutted by a fire that many, at the time, believed had been deliberately set. The Douglass family moved to Washington, D.C., where Frederick resumed his journalistic work after being away from it for nine years by launching the “New National Era.” With a loan from the Freedmens Savings and Trust Company, Douglass acquired Cedar Hill. Five years later Anna Murray Douglass died as the result of a stroke. Douglass sealed off his late wife’s room. Douglass had five children by Anna; the eldest daughter, Rosetta, was followed by sons Lewis, Frederick, Jr., and Charles, and a second daughter, Annie.

While he served as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, Douglass hired, as a clerk, Helen Pitts from Holyoke, New York. In 1884, Douglass married Helen, who was white; the interracial marriage caused Douglass to be heavily criticized by many in both racial communities, and even by some of his children. Perhaps to escape the glare of publicity, the Douglasses took a lengthy honeymoon in Europe and Egypt from 1885 to 1887. An ardent supporter of the Republican Party–as were the majority of African American voters until the mid-1930’s–he secured a post as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia from 1877 to 1881 before being recorder of deeds from 1881 to 1885. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass minister resident and consul general to the republic of Haiti; he served until 1891. In 1881, Douglass wrote his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881; rev. ed., 1892).

On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a heart seizure. Helen Douglass deeded the property to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association upon her death in 1903; the National Park Service took over the site’s maintenance in 1962.

Visiting the Site

Cedar Hill itself, the gardens, the Growlery (outdoor study) outbuilding, and the visitors’ center are open daily to the public except on January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25. The hours are from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the spring and summer and from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in the fall and winter.

For Further Information

  • Andrews, William L., ed. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Selected excerpts from all of Douglass’s major literary works.
  • Chesebrough, David B. Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. In three parts: The first contains sequential biography; the second analyzes Douglass’s speaking techniques; the third is a representative sample of his speeches.
  • Foner, Philip, ed. Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, 1969. Douglass’s own evaluation of his life and mission at the height of his career.
  • McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Popularized biography liberally illustrated with photographs and drawings. Focuses a great deal on his family life.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. 1948. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. An early but balanced insight into Douglass’s career, stressing the years of maturity and his interpersonal relationships.