Retracing Black History in Washington, D.C.

Did you know the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is home to the pen President Lyndon B. Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964? Or the $20 Double Eagle Coin, modeled by an African-American woman from South Carolina named Hettie Anderson, is housed at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire? The National Park Service protects these places and works with communities nationwide to preserve sites associated with black history.

Washington, D.C. is my home away from home and while there are several well-known Smithsonian museums detailing American history and monuments dedicated to historic figures, there are other lesser-known but equally important national parks tied to black heritage in the area:

Who knew there was so much American history made by black Americans in Washington, D.C.? One of the sites I've recently learned much about is Frederick Douglass's house, Cedar Hill (1411 W Street SE, Washington, DC 20020).

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement. He was a talented orator and writer, the exact opposite of slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to read, write or live as functioning American citizens. In addition to reading and writing, Douglass taught himself multiple languages, how to read music and to play the violin. He fought on behalf of many disenfranchised Americans, including blacks, women, Native Americans and immigrants.

Douglass's legacy is preserved at Cedar Hill in the southeast Washington D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia, where he lived the last 17 years of his life, until his death in 1895.

Front of Cedar Hill in the 1890's with Frederick Douglass visible in the shadows to the right of the door.  Photo Credit: National Park Service

Front of Cedar Hill in the 1890's with Frederick Douglass visible in the shadows to the right of the door. 
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Photo Credit: National Park Service

In those days, Anacostia was a predominantly white neighborhood. Frederick Douglass purchased a home here to make a statement to the community - that he belonged. The home contains 70% of his original artifacts. When on a tour, you're allowed to walk through his actual study, see the pens he chewed on while thinking and writing, and his extensive book collection. 

A typical visit at Cedar Hill lasts about 1.5 hours, as you tour the home and grounds, view exhibits and watch a short film. Something you may learn was that from 1889 to 1891, Douglass was the United States Ambassador to Haiti, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison. He traveled extensively throughout Europe and out of town visitors would often stay with him when in Washington D.C. Fun fact: the 'business card' of those days was a calling card. Visitors would leave behind calling cards from various countries, which are still on display at Cedar Hill today.

In honor of his birthday (February 14th), a celebration is held each year to celebrate his life and legacy. This year, he would have been 199 years old.  To learn more about Frederick Douglass's impact on American history, attend his family-friendly yearly birthday celebration with activities such as dance workshops, historic photography or take a tour of Cedar Hill, click here

African American history and heritage can be explored in national parks across the country. National parks go beyond the vast landscapes of Yellowstone and Yosemite and are accessible to everyone. Many people don’t realize that national park sites like Frederick Douglass National Historic Site are right in their backyard. Explore more of black history around the country and Find Your Park!