Restoring Dignity
Restoration of Frederick Douglass Home Keeps Faith With His Values

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2005

In 1894, Frederick Douglass wrote a speech about freedom's strange fruit, the bodies strung up by lynch mobs. He was, by then, the white-haired lion of the old abolition movement, the escaped slave turned national icon who had lived to see emancipation but also its backlash.

He penned his anti-lynching speech -- his last, it turned out -- at his Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, while seated at the roll-top oak desk in his library.

There seemed an intellectual idyll to Cedar Hill, so high on a hill that Douglass could look down on the Anacostia River and to the Capitol beyond. Douglass wrote there every day, surrounded by hundreds of books; busts and statues of mythic Roman figures (Diana, Mercury, Psyche); wisps of peacock feathers symbolizing good luck; and portraits of the white abolitionists with whom he'd campaigned.

As if completing the image of the proper Victorian-era gentleman that Douglass sought to project, a croquet court spread across his expansive lawn just outside his library window, near the grape arbor and the peach trees.

The former slave loved croquet. If there's some dissonance in that fact, well, that's Douglass. His lifestyle, his artifacts, his taste, speak of a man steeped in the class-conscious symbols and trends of his era. In keeping with the fashion of his day, he even selected a grayish-brown paint for Cedar Hill's exterior.

Next month, after decades during which the house has been white, the National Park Service will return Cedar Hill to Douglass's preferred color, with coffee, cream and blue detailing.

Some area residents are dismayed at the change. But the painting project is emblematic of the all-out push by Park Service officials to restore Cedar Hill as closely as possible to its original look. Curators want the museum, when it reopens by the end of next year, to precisely reflect the Douglass lifestyle and state of mind.

The self-taught orator, writer, thinker and moralist used his home and its iconography to project to the world a sense of arrival, of dignity. He had, after all, risen like few other black Americans before him: from the lash of the slave master to the prominence of high government office.

"What you've got here is somebody who is deeply conscious and proud of this kind of status he had achieved," says David W. Blight, a Yale University historian and author of "Frederick Douglass' Civil War."

Those 15 acres on which he lived in Anacostia carried the symbolism of his success, complete with servants, as befitted an affluent household of that era.

"So when he fills up his house with these kinds of Victorian objects or these classical objects, it's certainly an appeal for recognition, for status," says Blight.

In Douglass's lifestyle, he was in some respects "more Victorian than the Victorians," says Portia James, senior historian at the Anacostia Museum.

"This is a man who was tied and beaten like an animal" during slavery "and look what he had transformed himself into," she says.

A charming, large house with a wide, columned front porch, Cedar Hill became the Douglass family home in 1878. He purchased it apparently in defiance of the restrictive covenants in Anacostia title deeds that were intended to prohibit blacks and the Irish from owning or occupying property there.

He quickly expanded it from six rooms to 15. In the east parlor, he added grand window seats that gave the room a more opulent feel.

"He had a sense of making it more majestic," says Juliet L. Galonska, manager of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The site is managed by the National Park Service.

In some respects, Douglass made his home into an abolitionism museum. Each of its rooms was filled with portraits of the anti-slavery campaigners William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown and Wendell Phillips. Abraham Lincoln held sway from the wall above a fireplace in one of the parlors. Women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony also was present in a portrait in the house.

What is known of Douglass's decor comes from photographs taken just after he died in 1895. When curators return his personal effects to the home late next year after the restoration is complete, they will place them just as Douglass left them -- statues and feathers and portraits and all. A vest that was draped over a chair will return there, as if Douglass had just stepped away.

Oddly, perhaps, the only other historic black figure portrayed in the home, according to those 1895 photographs, was Joseph Cinque, leader of the famed 1839 uprising aboard the slave ship Amistad.

"Douglass had spent his life making his fame, his reputation, in this world of white intellectuals," says Blight. "These white abolitionists and politicians were the icons of American reform, and Douglass wanted to see himself as what he was -- a major player in America's reform history."

In the 1880s, T. Thomas Fortune, the black journalist and editor of the New York Freeman, criticized Douglass for losing touch with the realities of life for freed slaves facing mounting violence from racist whites.

But James, the Anacostia historian, says Douglass was very much in touch with the burgeoning black community of Washington, where he published the New National Era newspaper with a black partner, the Rev. J. Sella Martin. And he held poetry readings and gave talks at his home, which stood as a citadel of black striving.

And he and his family entertained as could be expected of their class.

"He had a checkerboard. He had a music box. They had good china. They had regular china," says Galonska.

He had a violin on which he played gospel and Scottish ballads, as well as a piano. Also on display in the Douglass home was his collection of walking sticks, including one from Mary Todd Lincoln, given to him after the president's assassination.

And what Victorian home would be complete without that stout canine, the mastiff? Douglass's was named Frank.

In addition to books on law, philosophy and religion, his library included popular titles that would become classics -- "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas.

Douglass was a fan, as well, of Sir Walter Scott. Soon after running away from slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore at age 21 in 1838 (with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman who later became his wife), Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey shortened his name. Frederick Douglass, he began calling himself, after the heroic but banished nobleman "James of Douglas" in Scott's romantic poem "The Lady of the Lake."

He loved Charles Dickens, too. "Bleak House" had a lasting impact that can still be seen at the Cedar Hill estate. In the book, the character known as John Jarndyce tells of his special room where he could be alone when he was "out of humour." Jarndyce called this room his "growlery."

At Cedar Hill, Douglass created his own growlery. It was out back, just beyond the croquet court. A reconstruction of it stands on the property today, a tiny, windowless, one-room structure where Douglass could retreat from the main house he shared with his wife, as well as their visiting children and grandchildren.

Later, he lived at Cedar Hill with Helen Pitts, his white former secretary, whom he married amid controversy two years after Anna's 1882 death.

While living at Cedar Hill, Douglass served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, and then as its recorder of deeds. He also served as the U.S. minister to Haiti, as well as charge d'affaires to the Dominican Republic.

With his passing in 1895, a year after his famous anti-lynching speech, his widow set up the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historic Association. That group purchased Cedar Hill and cared for it until the National Park Service took it over as a historic site in 1962.

As part of the ongoing restoration, Douglass's artifacts are being preserved. His leather-seated rocking chair, made in Haiti, is being repaired. His thousands of books are in temperature-controlled museum storage facilities in Maryland, along with several editions of the North Star abolitionist newspaper he published while living in Rochester, N.Y., before moving to the District.

Park Service officials are exploring ways to treat the wood of the Douglass library shelves to combat the acidity that deteriorates book pages. Temperature and humidity monitors have been placed in every room of the house for the eventual return of the artifacts before the home reopens.

But Cedar Hill still holds a few secrets. One that has particularly vexed Galonska is this: Did Douglass install indoor plumbing in the addition he had built in 1878? Documents found among Douglass's papers suggest he paid for indoor plumbing to be installed at his home on A Street NE, where he and his family previously lived. But it is not clear whether he did the same at Cedar Hill.

The question is significant, Galonska says, because it would add to the historic understanding of Douglass's quest to keep up with social trends. In that 1878 expansion, Douglass modernized the home by adding an indoor kitchen, pantry and laundry room -- amenities that, until then, had been in outbuildings.

The presence of indoor plumbing, Galonska says, would be "another reflection of Frederick Douglass as a man of his times. And he was someone who was very interested in keeping up with what was modern."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company