From the Field

The Lion of Anacostia


Cedar Hill, the former residence of Frederick Douglass and now a national park site, is a distinct historic landscape in the southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The estate sits on eight acres of land high on a hilltop where one gets an excellent view of the Washington skyline.

Frederick Douglass lived at this residence from 1878 until his death in 1895. The house was built between 1855 and 1859 with 6-14 rooms serving as offices for the Union Land Association. Architect John Welsh Van Hook and others purchased a surrounding 100 acres to form Uniontown, now Anacostia.

In 1877 and 1878, Douglass purchased the home, in addition to 16 acres of land, with his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass and their children.

Douglass made a series of renovations to his home, including the building of a new library, additions to second story bedrooms, and a five-bedroom attic. By the time renovations were complete, the Douglass home was a 21-bedroom mansion. A fierce advocate for the abolition of slavery and women’s voting rights, Frederick Douglass had many acquaintances who were banned from staying in Washington D.C. hotels. Suffragists and abolitionists alike were welcomed into the many guest rooms in Douglass’ home during their travels to D.C.

One enters the home from its charming front porch and continues through the very parlor where
Douglass would have greeted his many daily visitors. Many of the portraits, books, and other furnishings are original items that belonged to Frederick Douglass and his family. The house sits on its original foundation, although it has undergone three restoration projects. The most recent restoration effort concluded in 2007.

Not 100 paces behind the house is the Growlery, a term coined by author Charles Dickens as a place to growl. The Growlery contained only a small desk, chair, and a fireplace and was a place for Douglass to read and write in seclusion. Today, National Park Service rangers humorously refer to the structure as Douglass’ “man-cave.” This tiny stone cabin was reconstructed in 1981 using materials from the original structure upon the original location.

In 1962, the Douglass house became a unit of the National Park Service after the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historic Association (FDMHA) petitioned Congress to preserve Cedar Hill. Assisting the FDMHA was Mary Douglass, his second wife.

In 1980, the National Park Service constructed a visitor center at the base of Cedar Hill. It features interpretive signs highlighting the accomplished man born into slavery who later became a United States ambassador to Haiti and one of the most photographed men of the 19th century. Inspiring quotes from Douglass’ writings as well as replicas of pages from his infamous newspaper, the North Star, are also on display. Access to his estate is only available through a guided tour and can be reserved for $1.50 in advance or at the Visitor Center. This vital urban park honors the legacy of Frederick Douglass, offering an insight into the life of an important champion of freedom in the United States.

Originally published March 6, 2018

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves the home and estate of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African Americans of the 19th century. Douglass lived in this houseuntil his death in 1895.

Carolyn Black

Carolyn was born and raised in Massachusetts and graduated from UMass Amherst with a BA in Social Thought and Political Economy and a Minor in Natural Resource Conservation. She is interested in the human and economic impact of conservation and climate change mitigation. 

February 19, 2020

Main image: Cedar Hill
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