Frederick Douglass's Home

History Overlooking the Anacostia

Frederick Douglass's Southeast Washington home, right, features a desk, above, and other objects belonging to the famed abolitionist.
Frederick Douglass's Southeast Washington home, right, features a desk, above, and other objects belonging to the famed abolitionist. (By James A. Parcell For The Washington Post, Above; By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post, Right)
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Friday, February 1, 2008

If in 1877 you called upon slave-turned-presidential-adviser Frederick Douglass at his Cedar Hill home perched high on an Anacostia hill, a butler would have asked for your card and your reason for visiting.

If you go today to this out-of-the-way national historic site, you'll get a spectacular view of the Washington skyline and insights into one of the more complex and fascinating characters in American history.

There is much to learn about the abolitionist, orator, author and statesman within his 21-room home. Douglass greeted visitors in one of two parlors. Now those parlors are filled with Douglass's possessions. In one, a violin that he taught himself to play rests on top of the piano.

Douglass also taught himself to read, and books line the shelves of his library floor to ceiling. The room couldn't hold all of his books; about a quarter of his collection is in storage. Against one wall is an assortment of walking sticks, a favorite Douglass accessory. The one on display in the visitor center belonged to Abraham Lincoln and was a gift from his widow to Douglass.

Upstairs are the bedrooms, two on the east side for the men and three on the west for the women. The museum offers glimpses into the trends of the late 1800s, so upstairs features a hair collector (exactly what it sounds like) and an unusually short bed (sleeping sitting upright was believed to be healthier than lying down).

The grounds offer as much insight into Douglass as does his home. Be sure to note the stone structure behind the house. It's a reconstruction of Douglass's "Growlery." Douglass would hole up in the windowless room so he could think without being disturbed. He gave it its name because it invoked the "image of a lion's lair" and reminded him of a similar shed in Charles Dickens's "Bleak House."

Whatever you do, don't leave the grounds until you've taken a minute to look across the Anacostia River and enjoy a moment in the city without being disturbed. The quiet time spent might be just as inspiring for you as it was for Douglass.

-- Amy Orndorff

IF YOU GO Nearby parking is abundant, but if you don't want to drive, the house is about a half-mile from the Anacostia Metro station (Green Line) at 1411 W St. SE. From the station, turn left on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and walk to W Street. Turn right and continue to 14th Street. The house is also accessible via the B2 bus from the Anacostia Metro station toward Mount Rainier; stop at 14th and W streets.

The visitor center is open daily from 9 to 4 from mid-October to mid-April and from 9 to 5 the rest of the year. Tours are at 9, 12:15, 1:45, 3 and 3:30. Reserve tickets for the house tour at at least one day in advance; $1.50 fee per ticket. The visitor center shows a 17-minute movie about Douglass's life and offers maps of the grounds and other artifacts from Douglass's life.

FOR MORE INFO:202-426-5961.

HAVE MORE THAN THREE HOURS? Visit the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Pl. SE), which chronicles African American history. Open daily from 10 to 5; free. Also stop by the Big Chair at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street SE. This 19 1/2 -foot-tall piece of kitschy Americana is a 2006 remake of the rotted original.

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