Celebrating 190th Birthday of Frederick Douglass

Radio Host Joe Madison to Speak at Leader’s Anacostia Home

Feb. 14 will commemorate the 190th birthday of Frederick Douglass. The date will also celebrate the first anniversary of his Anacostia home reopening to the public after three years of renovations.

More than 22,000 people have visited the 19th century estate since last February, and the National Park Service is planning a celebration at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 14. Nationally syndicated talk radio host Joe Madison will be the keynote speaker, and the Jubilee Singers will perform at the event. The occasion is open to the public.

This historic landmark has drawn bus loads of school children and tourists from around the nation. While no one is sure exactly when Douglass’ home was built, it is known that John Van Hook built the home between 1854 and 1857. During the 17½ years that Van Hook lived in the home, it became known as Van Hook Hill. Douglass bought the home for $6,700 in 1877, breaking the “whites only” covenant and renaming the land Cedar Hill after the many Cedar trees that can be found on the property.

During Douglass’ days at Cedar Hill, members of the community would make impromptu visits to the home but many were turned away because of Douglass’ heavy workload. But on rare occasions, Douglass would have spare time to host a game of checkers in his east parlor room with fellow Anacostia residents.

More formal, and scheduled, visits from Douglass’ acquaintances were held in the west parlor where Douglass would play the piano or the violin for his guests. On these occasions, Douglass made sure that his guests were a part of the performance, insisting that they sing along or play the tambourine while he performed.

Today, 75 percent of the furnishings in the residence are original pieces belonging to Douglass and his family. Ryan Arnold, a tour guide at the Frederick Douglass home, says that it was Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, who insisted that the house and its artifacts be preserved as a memorial to her late husband.

Douglass’ marriage to Pitts created quite a stir back in 1884. Nineteen months after his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, died, Frederick married Pitts, a white woman. Both blacks and whites were offended by Douglass and Pitts’ marriage. Pitts’ parents stopped talking to her altogether.

Douglass, whose father was white and mother was black, did not see an issue with his new wife’s skin color. According to Arnold, Douglass’ response to the controversy was, “My first wife was the color of my mother; my second is the color of my father.”

Twenty-first century visitors to Douglass’ home can take a tour of the 21-room house and stop by the visitor’s center to browse around the museum and take a look at a timeline of Douglass’ life, quotations from some of his most famous speeches, pictures of his family and his death mask.

A first-time visitor, Chuck Campbell, a tour bus driver for New World Tours, said that he didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was before visiting the museum. “I had heard the name, but I never thought to ask questions about who he was,” Campbell said. He said a fellow driver invited him inside to learn about Douglass.

The visitor’s center also has a bookstore that carries books for the young and old alike about African-American history. A 30-minute video presentation describes the life of the man some call the father of the civil rights movement.

Ka’Mal McClarin, a park ranger who has worked at the Frederick Douglass home for a year, said that Cedar Hill makes history alive for visitors. “I learn something new everyday about Douglass’ legacy as a human and civil rights leader,” McClarin said.