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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is one of the most recognizable and championed civil rights leaders in American history. He was a self-educated intellectual who escaped the chains of slavery and exposed its atrocities through rousing orations and written works of his personal experiences. Throughout his life, Douglass was an advocate for the basic principles of American liberty—that all people should be free, regardless of gender, nationality, or the color of their skin.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into a life of slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, during the February of 1818. The exact date of his birth is unknown, though Frederick would celebrate his birthday on February 14 later in life. He was subjected to the harsh realities of slavery at a young age—forcefully separated from his mother, Harriet, as a toddler—and only managed to see her a handful of times before her death in 1828. Frederick was raised by his grandmother, Betsy, until age seven, when he was sold off as a house servant to Hugh and Sophia Auld of Baltimore.

Frederick Douglass

Sophia fostered young Frederick. She magnanimously taught him the how to read and write (unlawful practices of the day) and provided him proper living necessities. Her husband, Hugh, was not as kind. He vehemently disapproved of Frederick’s tutoring, claiming that education would corrupt the slave and encourage their desires for freedom. Hugh’s protests prompted Sophia to cease her teaching, but that didn’t stop Frederick from learning. He consulted neighborhood children to help develop his grammar and secretly read manuscripts during what little free time he had. At age twelve, Frederick acquired a copy of The Columbian Orator—a collection of speeches and essays written for schoolchildren on the topic of inherent human rights. He would later credit this book to be an integral part of his learning and a major influence for his interpretations of freedom.

In the early 1830s, Frederick was hired out to William Freeland as a field laborer. While at Freeland’s plantation, Frederick hosted weekly Sunday school sessions where he taught fellow slaves how to read the New Testament. Freeland found out about Frederick’s endeavors early on, and although he didn’t approve the nature of his teachings, he allowed the literacy lessons to continue. Frederick’s classes continued for another six months and gained a considerable following from the enslaved community. However, it was only a matter of time before word got out to Freeland’s white neighbors. They staged a mob in response to these “illegal” activities, raided one of Frederick’s sessions, and forced him to disband his congregation permanently.

In 1833, following the incursion on his Sunday school, Frederick was sent back to the Auld family and placed in the charge of Edward Covey, a “slave-breaker” who was “notorious for his fierce and savage disposition.” Under Covey’s custody, Frederick was subjected to regular physical and psychological abuse. He was frequently deprived of food and sleep and whipped so often that his wounds barely had time to heal. Finally, after one beating too many, Frederick physically retaliated against Covey. The two men fought it out for nearly two hours before Covey submitted to Frederick. He was never beaten again under Covey’s ward.

In 1838, Frederick fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman who worked as a laundress on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. When Frederick expressed his desire to escape slavery, she provided him the means to do so. On September 3, 1838, Frederick—using clothes and money provided by Anna—disguised himself as a sailor and purchased a train ticket to New York City. Within 24 hours, he had successfully fled the bonds of slavery.

Anna and Frederick were married shortly after his escape north on September 15, 1838. They adopted the surname ‘Douglass’ and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The couple decided to start a family and raised five children over the course of their marriage.

In 1839, Douglass acquainted William Lloyd Garrison during an assembly of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison was the publisher of the Liberator—a religiously and morally-motivated abolitionist newspaper—deeply moved by Douglass’s accounts of slavery. He convinced Douglass to go on tour with the American Anti-Slavery Society across the Northeast and Midwest as an orator to detail his experiences as a slave. It was during this tour that Douglass developed a reputation as an inspirational and stimulating speaker and emerged as a national leader for civil rights.

Cedar Hill

Douglass’s fame didn’t come without its critics. Some people questioned Douglass’s authenticity when it came to his accounts of slavery, believing that no former slave without any formal education could speak so eloquently about the subject. In response to the skepticism, Douglass published his first autobiography in 1845: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave. Douglass’s book detailed his personal interactions with the institution of slavery, naming people, places, and events in his life. While his autobiography established validity to his story, it also jeopardized his own freedom. Douglass sailed to England in August 1845 to avoid capture. He did not return to the United States until December 1846, when Ellen Richardson, a British colleague of Douglass’s, raised 150 pounds to buy him his freedom.

Douglass returned to the United States a free man and moved his family to Rochester, New York, in the spring of 1847. There, he started his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, and helped fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad escape to Canada. He was also an active participant in the growing Women’s Rights Movement and attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

Frederick Douglass’s democratic philosophy was that of a universal reformer—equality for all people regardless of race, class, gender, or country of origin. He advocated a progressive agenda, fighting for workers’ protection, improved prison conditions, equal pay for colored soldiers, women’s suffrage, and a less stringent immigration policy for Chinese workers.

As Douglass’s views matured, he developed an ideological split with Garrison about the U.S. Constitution. Douglass believed that, through amendments and legislation, the Constitution could be used as a means to fight slavery. Garrison, on the other hand, argued that Constitution was a racist manuscript instilled in pro-slavery sentiments and publicly demonstrated his displeasure by burning copies of the national document. These public burnings gave Douglass the impression that Garrison was too radical and the two terminated their partnership, which created a notable divide in the abolitionist community. Douglass also expressed his disapproval of John Brown’s planned raid on the Federal Armory in Harpers Ferry, fearing such an attack would anger the American public and cost Brown his life.

During the American Civil War, Douglass worked as a recruiter for the Union Army and helped assemble the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry regiments (two of his sons served in the 54th). Douglass also met with President Abraham Lincoln throughout the war on behalf of black soldiers for equal pay and treatment in the Federal Army. Following the Civil War, Douglass helped influence the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—the abolishment of slavery, national birthright citizenship, and the protection of voting rights regardless of race, respectively.

Frederick Douglass's Library

In the early summer of 1872, Douglass’s home in Rochester, New York, burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. He moved his family to Uniontown (modern-day Anacostia) that June. Through the mid-1800s, Uniontown carried a stringent housing policy that restricted the sale of properties to persons of “African or Irish descent.” Douglass purchased Uniontown’s prominent estate of Cedar Hill in 1878 and helped facilitate the community’s desegregation process. By 1880, the African American population of Uniontown had risen to 15%.

Douglass encouraged hospitality and openness in the community by periodically hosting “open houses” at his Cedar Hill estate. Friends, family, neighbors, and even total strangers were invited to his home for tea, stimulating conversation, and indulgence in the arts. Douglass adorned his home with paintings and sculptures, enjoyed symphony orchestras (he was self-trained in the violin), and was an active member of the Uniontown Shakespearean Club.

Douglass continued to be a captivating public figure throughout his later years. He was President of the Freedman’s Bank, a member of the Commission of Inquiry to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), and served on the Howard University Board of Trustees from 1871 to 1895. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia.

In 1882, Anna Murray died of a stroke. Douglass was devastated after losing his wife of 44 years, stating that “the main pillar of my house has fallen.” In 1884, Douglass remarried to Helen Pitts, a white women who worked his clerk at the time and was twenty years his younger. Their union caused a stir of controversy due to its interracial and age-related aspects. Both families initially expressed disapproval of the matrimony, but they came to accept it in time.

In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti. He resigned from the position in 1891 and spent the rest of his days touring the U.S., Europe, and Africa delivering speeches about civil rights, suffrage, and his experiences as a slave.

Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack on February 20, 1895, at the age of 77. Helen inherited the Cedar Hill estate and worked tirelessly to preserve Douglass’s legacy as a civil rights leader. She invited members of the National League of Colored Women to Cedar Hill following Douglass’s death to establish the property as a historic site. In 1900, Congress created the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (FDMHA) to help further preserve his legacy.

The Frederick Douglass Visitor Center

When Helen Pitts died in 1903, she left Cedar Hill (which still had a $5,500 mortgage) to the FDMHA. It would take nearly fifteen years to pay that mortgage off. Fundraising campaigns organized by Booker T. Washington and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) helped ease the financial burden to preserve and rehabilitate the home.

Cedar Hill’s first restoration took place on August 12, 1922. Robert R. Morton, President of the Tuskegee Institute, inaugurated the project while Joseph Douglass, Frederick’s grandson, played violin in front of an audience of thousands. Landscaping and development continued into the 1930s with help from Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration. On September 5, 1962, President John F. Kennedy incorporated Cedar Hill into the National Parks System and the site opened to the public in February 1972.

A trip to Cedar Hill begins at the Visitor Center where tourists are shown a riveting and dramatic screenplay of Frederick Douglass’s life and obtain tickets to tour his home. Tickets are free, but they are the only way to enter the estate. Space is limited for each tour, so it’s important to arrive early or reserve your tickets online to ensure your spot is secured.

Following the fifteen-minute film, guests are directed up the stairs to the front of the house where the mansion tour begins. You get a sense of how incredible the interior of the house is once you step inside of Cedar Hill’s parlor. Antique wallpaper, furniture, and art decorate the walls, many of which originally belonged to Frederick Douglass’s personal collection. The tour guides, who are very friendly and knowledgeable, walk you through each room in the house and provide great detail about the daily lives of the Douglass family. Tours of the house take an hour to complete and the full experience at Cedar Hill should last at least 90 minutes.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is a small but symbolically-monumental park that stands as a testament to a nationally-revered civil rights leader, the strides and sacrifices he made for his people’s freedom, and the legacy he left behind.

For more information on the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, visit the National Parks web page!

Be sure to check out this reading list about Frederick Douglass and take a virtual tour of the property before you visit!


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