On a recent Friday, I ran up the 85 steps to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site — I was late for my 12:30 tour — and landed right in the middle of a fascinating history lesson. Over the next two hours, I would learn all about the great American orator and abolitionist while also gaining a better grasp of the lead-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and the racial apartheid that followed.
My teacher? A tour guide and National Park Service ranger who, perhaps inspired by Douglass’ gift for dramatic speech, had just begun a spirited overview of Douglass’ life.
“By the time Mr. Douglass had arrived in D.C. on a permanent basis in 1872, he had already made a name for himself: He was an adviser to presidents. He held high-ranking government positions. He was chief editor of a newspaper,” the ranger said.
Douglass’ decision, in 1878, to move from Capitol Hill into Anacostia — then an all-white suburb of D.C. — was just one of many ballsy moves that also included beating up a slave master, running an abolitionist newspaper and sending his own sons to fight in the Civil War.
“That’s some BDE right there,” one tourist in our group, a 20-something black woman, said to her friend. (If you don’t know what that stands for, Google it.)
The park ranger ushered us into Douglass’ home, where an astounding amount of the objects were owned by the man himself. That includes Douglass’ eyeglasses on his writing desk and the canes beside it, the piano in the parlor around which the Douglass family gathered for evening music-making, and the kitchen table, where Douglass sat and conferred with other black leaders including Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells.
One new addition to the decor is a large portrait of Douglass’ first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, which was painted in 1922. You won’t learn much about her from Douglass’ three autobiographies, our guide said, but she was a key part of Douglass’ story. A free black woman living in Baltimore, Anna Murray Douglass was an extremely savvy businesswoman, and she gave Douglass the money he needed to escape slavery in 1838.
The two married that year, and they took the name Douglass (from a Scottish poem) so that Frederick could shed his birth name — Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey — and avoid being found and recaptured, our guide said. However, in his first autobiography, published in 1845, Douglass revealed his birth name, which allowed his former owners to find him. Douglass fled to England, where he could haggle over the price of his own freedom in relative safety.
“The bid started out at $5,000 and Douglass said, ‘You want $5,000? You can wait for it but you aren’t going to see Douglass again,’” our guide paraphrased. They eventually landed on the figure of $711.66, and Douglass returned to the U.S.
In that same room, our guide pointed out a portrait of Douglass’ second wife — a white woman. (“Typical,” commented the 20-something tourist.)
“Seventeen months after Mrs. Anna died, Mr. Douglass married Mrs. Helen Pitts,” our guide said. “Is that a controversial marriage? You better believe it was.” The ranger added that, as an interracial couple, the two couldn’t legally travel together in much of the U.S.
As we moved to the library, the ranger noted that Douglass had nearly 3,000 books — a remarkable thing for a man who, as an enslaved child, was forbidden to read. As a boy, Douglass learned to read from white children, whom he plied with snacks.
“How many 10-year-olds do you know who would say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’ve hired myself a reading tutor’?” our guide said.
The ranger used that as an opportunity for a quick lecture, to the kids in our tour group, on the importance of education for lifting up your status in the world. Later, he gave a remarkably efficient overview of how African-Americans remained essentially enslaved even after the Civil War.
“The 13th Amendment read that slavery or involuntary servitude — except as punishment for crime — is abolished,” he summarized, running over the middle bit as if it was the side effects in a drug advertisement. “People hear the first part, they hear the back part, but they don’t hear the exception. Overnight, misdemeanors became felonies. If I left a job yesterday and was starting a new job tomorrow, today I could be arrested for vagrancy. And they would particularly start to arrest individuals during harvest time. The penitentiaries would lease them out to plantations,” he said.
As we moved to the kitchen and then upstairs to the bedrooms, our ranger focused more on the day-to-day lives of people in the late 1800s. In a clever bit of gross-out education that I bet really stayed with the kids on our tour, our ranger pointed out a chamber pot, and implied that you could use it to fix yourself a big bowl of cereal in the morning before he revealed its true function.
The tour ended back in the foyer, where Douglass was standing when he died of a heart attack in 1895, at the age of about 77. (Like many enslaved people, Douglass didn’t know his exact birthday.) Before sending us on our way, our guide offered some concluding thoughts and a football metaphor.
“This is a great story. Not because it’s a great black story. Not because it’s a great American story. It’s a great human story. Because anytime someone perseveres through adversity and wins, guess what? The whole entire team wins. Whether you are the star player or the equipment manager, guess what? Everyone gets a championship ring.”
I don’t know if all of the tour guides are as great as the one I got, but I definitely recommend checking out the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Just think of it as D.C.’s answer to Monticello or Mount Vernon — though I must say, I find Frederick Douglass’ home (and life) to be even more inspiring than those better-known patriarchs.
More D.C. adventures with the Staycationer