ANACOSTIA NEIGHBORHOOD MUSEUM -- 2405 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. 381-6731 Daily, 10 to 5:30. FREDERICK DOUGLASS HOME -- 14th and W Streets SE. 889-1736. Daily, 9 to 4.
There is a federal museum in Washington that honors a great man, stands as a living example of a Victorian home with most of its original furnishings, and commands a rare and sweeping view of the Federal City.
Hardly anybody goes there.
A few blocks from the magnificent old house is a full-fledged Smithsonian museum. Hardly anybody goes there either.
If the Frederick Douglass Home and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum were anywhere but in Anacostia, the tourists would be standing in line. But they are in Anacostia, which in this town is to say they are all but ignored.
Climb the steep brick steps of Cedar Hill and you have plenty of time to admire the view from the Douglass porch, because the National Park Service staff isn't expecting visitors and it takes a while for them to answer the door. Enter the Neighborhood Museum and a guard will be surprised to learn that you came to visit the museum rather than to seek directions on how to get back to the 11th Street (Anacostia) Bridge.
Both the home and the museum are firstclass attractions, and it's a shame that so few people get to see them. It's also easy to understand why. Anacostia has long been the forgotten fifth of the District of Columbia, across the river and out of mind. The old appointed city commissioners pretty much ignored it; while home rule is asserted to be "turning things around," enforcement of the hlousing code still seems a farce there, and some main streets are littered with abandoned cars and broken glass. It's a place where motorists tend to keep their windows up and their doors locked and their eyes straight ahead at traffic lights.
Which leaves those who do go there the delightful experience of having the two museums virtually to themselves.
Physically and logically, it's easier to go to the Neighborhood Museum first, The Nabe, formerly a theater, has recently opened "Out of Africa," an account of the West African kingdoms where most American blacks have their roots and of the virtual destruction of those ancient civilizations by Arabian and European colonists and slavers. The second half of the exhibit traces the development of slavery in the New World and the rise of the Abolitionist movement.
It's long and a rich history and a kaleidoscope of cultures, not to be absorbed in a quick pass; neither is the rise of "the peculiar institution" simple to describe. The exhibit is probably too ambitious, given the space available, but I would not want to have been the one who decided what to leave out.
Yet, since the principal visitors are school-children and young people from the neighborhood, I found myself wondering how many of them go away with a sense of the pattern the exhibit's creators were trying to portray, rather than jumbled impressions.
What the Nabe lacks in space and accessibility it tries to make up with a program of almost daily special events. Many of the guest speakers and artists are members of the staffs or families of African ambassadors. On a given day the offering may be folk tales, art lectures, cooking or crafts demonstrations, music and dance or hair plaiting. Films are shown every week.
Submerged in the vast stream of slaves depicted in the Nabe exhibit were the ancestors of Frederick Douglass. He knew little of his parents and nothing beyond them.
But he knew he was a man, and in one lifetime (c. 1817 to 1895) he fought his way from a plantation near Easton -- where he broke Talbot County's most fearsome "slavebreaker" -- to freedom, fame, public office and finally to such social security that he could marry a white woman at a time when other blacks might be lynched just for looking at one.
The Douglass Home at 14th and W streets SE stands on the shady brow of a ridge spur that towers above Eastern Branch. While the foreground is cluttered with slums and tank farms, on a clear day the view extends across the Mall and Capitol Hill to the city's northern heights.
Preserved for half a century by private efforts and beautifully restored in the '60s by the Park Service, the house would be worth visiting no matter who had lived there. The effect is redoubled by the reflection that it was the last home on earth of an "uppity pickaninny" who was a trial to his master and who grew up to sear the conscience of the world.
All but a handful of the furnishings are original, from the chamber pots under the beds to the books on the shelves. The core of such a man's life is not to be found in his possessions, but some of the texture of it is. And one comes away with a deeper sense of Douglass.