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Cedar Hill:
Frederick Douglass' Home Is As Imposing
As the Man Who Lived There

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block

aving recently received a misguided shout-out from the president during Black History Month – Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job… – it seems a good time to revisit the cultural icon's legitimate place in history. And a visit to his home in Washington, DC – surely a place the current president might want to consider visiting himself – would be a good place to start.

Cedar Hill, Washington D.C. - home of Frederick Douglass

Built high atop a hill in Anacostia in southeast D.C., just 10 minutes from the Tidal Basin and overlooking the Washington Monument and the Capitol, Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass, matches the man in stature, eloquence and grandeur.

violin at the Cedar Hill

Douglass, whom many consider "the most eminent and respected African American of the 19th century," was a runaway slave in 1838 at the age of 20. By the time he was 60, when he moved with his wife, Anna, into the 1850s brick house that he called Cedar Hill, the former slave had distinguished himself as a renowned orator, fiery abolitionist, influential journalist and publisher, Ambassador to Haiti and outspoken advocate of voting rights for women. In his spare time, he served as advisor to five presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison.

The purchase of Cedar Hill by Douglass carries a sense of irony, yet at the same time, serves as a parable for his life's work. Douglass once again triumphed over the obstacle of race – and did so by perpetual agitation, a concept he'd adopted as a mantra.

When John Van Hook, the original owner, was forced to sell the property due to bankruptcy, he established a covenant that stipulated that it not be sold to anyone of color, including immigrants, the Irish and Catholics. He didn't expect that the financial institution which handled the sale would have Frederick Douglass as its president.

kitchen table at Cedar Hill

Still, the restrictions remained in effect for three years, while Douglass used his influence in Congress and elsewhere to maneuver around the covenant's intention in order to buy the home for himself.

The 1877 purchase continued to be controversial because Douglass himself was fostering dissension in the community. Within 18 months after his beloved Anna died, Douglass married his secretary, Helen. That was bad enough. Throw in that she was 20 years younger… and white, and it's clear why living at Cedar Hill, and the 15 acres on which it sat at the time, was not without its challenges. Nonetheless, Douglass happily resided there for the last 17 years of his life, and it was Helen who fought vigorously to preserve Cedar Hill as his memorial.

kitchen area at Cedar Hill

Because of her early efforts, 70% of the remaining furnishings and artifacts are original, very unusual in most renovated historic settings. Somehow you look that much closer at the picture of Abraham Lincoln in the study, knowing it was a personal gift from The Great Emancipator himself. And at the portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a present she gave Douglass in honor of the many years they spent together fighting for the women's right to vote.

Despite its grand size – Douglass added 7 rooms to the original 14 – I felt comfortable immediately upon entering, as if I could move right in and be at home.

close-up of Frederick Douglass' table at Cedar Hill

I could visualize Douglass sitting at the small table in the family room where an unfinished game of checkers remains, the chair slightly askew as if had just walked away for a moment. Adding to the sense of his presence, the wood-carved board and pieces reputedly had been made by Douglass himself.

Nearby, the library, Douglass' favorite room, appears eminently readable. Stocked with over 900 books, it's clear how big a part books played in his life. Since his early years as a slave, when he secretly taught himself to read and write, he recognized that literacy "was the pathway from slavery to freedom."

Among the many canes that Douglass collected, two especially are of great personal significance. One, displayed in the library, was hand-crafted by a former slave/friend, with different events of Douglass' life engraved into the wood. The other, an ivory-handled walking stick given him by Mary Todd Lincoln after her husband's death – a reflection of the President's high regard for Douglass – can be found in the Visitors Center, an important stop prior to the tour of the house. History buff that I am, the idea that both Lincoln and Douglass might have leaned upon that cane as each traveled his own rocky path into history brought me a chill.

Cedar Hill's master bedroom

Upstairs, in the master bedroom (so called because, unlike today, only the "master" slept there), try to picture the over six-foot Douglass in a bed only slightly larger than 5 feet. This required sleeping somewhat upright, akin to what a reading-in-bed position is now. Next to the bed stands the de rigueur chamber pot. Despite its function, I was very impressed with its elegant, intricate design ringed with gold trim.

A bed pillow, embroidered by Helen, reads, "Two is Company, Three's a Crowd." The tour guide claimed its meaning remains a mystery. Still, I entertained some fun fantasies. Subtle reference to a mistress, perhaps? Or to memories of her husband's first wife, Anna, whom Helen may have felt still shared their bed? Or just commentary on dinner party preferences?

Asked by Lincoln to recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, Douglass did – including two of his sons. It was that regiment, and its last battle in which 80% of the soldiers died, that formed the basis for the award-winning film, "Glory." The only reason Douglass didn't lose both sons was because his younger boy was sick that day and unable to join the battle.

Indeed, the long and full life of Frederick Douglass is itself a glorious story – and his home on Cedar Hill reflects that in all its glory. Are you listening, Mr. President? For information, contact Cedar Hill, 1411 W. Street, SE, Washington, DC 20020; 202/426-5961; Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Related Articles:
The Newseum; Roadside Attraction Postcards from Washington, DC; The Cherry Blossoms
of Washington D.C.
; Washington DC: The Dupont Circle Hotel's Package

(Posted 3-22-2017)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Three Musical Pilgrimages: Mozart, Grieg and Hendrix

Troldhaugen Villa in Bergen, Norway
Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) could read and compose music, plus play the violin and piano, when he was five years old. Born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria (then the Holy Roman Empire), he had a unique ability for imitating music, which first became evident when he recited a musical piece by simply observing his father conducting a lesson to his older sister. This led to a childhood on the road, where the young prodigy performed before many of the royal courts of Europe.

Go There

Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Irish Goodbye (Dispatch #20)

Irish sunset

The Palladian Traveler brings to a close his 20-part series on the Emerald Isle from an upscale restaurant in downtown Dublin where he files his final dispatch and then quietly slips away.

Go There

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