Features: From fugitive to freedom fighter

Frederick Douglass House
Wednesday, Jan. 23
9 a.m.

My English professor a couple of semesters ago told us to visit former slave Frederick Douglass’ house as an extra credit assignment. Because it was extra credit – not to mention it’s in Anacostia, on 1411 W St. – I never bothered to go. But I heard many good things about the house from friends who went and decided it was worth the trip.

My friends and I decided to go early in the morning so we can get back before our classes start?d. Rolling out of bed at 8 a.m. was not a pleasant experience. I put on my baseball cap and a pair of sweatpants and trekked out to Foggy Bottom Metro, where we took the Blue line train to L’Enfant Plaza and transferred to the Green line to get to Anacostia.

Since it was drizzling when we got off the 45-minute journey, we took the Mount Rainier Metrobus. The bus driver was exceptionally nice and didn’t make us pay the fare because we had forgotten to get free bus passes from the Metro station. She even motioned us to the right stop at 14th and W streets. You can’t miss the big house on Cedar Hill.

We got to the house a little earlier than when the tour started at 10 a.m. We read the quotations on the walls and the brief history of Douglass’ life. I began to remember the excerpts from his narrative that I had to read from my English class. Strange thought: I’m actually learning things at college.

Douglass was a self-taught escaped slave that advocated the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. He escaped slavery and went to England to avoid capture when he was a young man until he could buy his own freedom. When he returned to the United States, he became a well-renowned orator.

We watched a 30-minute film on Douglass’ life in the small auditorium. My two friends and I were the only people there. It was going to be a private tour, I thought to myself. How I was mistaken. Ten or 15 minutes into the film, about a billion kids walked into the auditorium and it took them a while to quiet down. Of course with my luck, I had to go on the day there was an elementary school field trip.

After the movie, which I thought was pretty interesting; we headed out to the house. It was beautiful. Up on the hill, the view was magnificent. I could see the Capitol and the Washington Monument. I could see all the highways and streets that weren’t there when Douglass was around.

We walked up the steep steps on the hill, and I complained about how many stairs there were. I wondered how an old man like Douglass would have climbed them. He lived there for the last 17 years of his life, from when he was about 60. My concern was echoed by a couple of children walking up the hill behind us.

Our tour guide greeted us at the door and to my surprise was extremely patient with the little rug rats. They split us up into two groups of 23, and we went through the house. We started in reverse, with the upstairs, and the other group started downstairs.

We saw Douglass’ bedroom. For a man that was 6-foot-2, his bed was extremely short. A little less than a foot shorter than he was, I think my feet would have dangled off the edge of the bed. The guide explained that Douglass slept sitting up, with pillows to prop him up, which was commonplace at the time. After the guide told us the height of Douglass, a kid asked if he was taller than Shaquille O’Neal The tour guide assured the little boy that O’Neal was probably much taller than Douglass was.

We then saw his two wives’ rooms. His first wife, who died a few years after they moved into the house on Cedar Hill, slept in a separate room than he did. The guide told us after her death, Douglass locked the room up and wouldn’t reopen it as a memorial to her.

Douglass married Helen Pitts later in his life. There was a lot of controversy surrounding their marriage, not because she was 30 years younger than he, but because she was a white woman. A few miles away in Virginia, interracial marriages were illegal.

The dining room and living rooms were very pretty, but the room that struck me most was the laundry room. The guide told us it would take two to three days to wash and dry laundry back then. I already have trouble doing laundry now and that only eats up a couple of hours of my time. I couldn’t imagine doing laundry then. I really don’t think I would have done it.

After the tour, we headed out of the house and stood on the hill to admire the view. We also tried to take a picture of the house, but there were too many children standing in line outside it. We decided we’d head back to the bus stop and take the bus back. Of course, we couldn’t make out the timetable or figure anything out about the bus route, so we decided to walk two blocks to the main road and catch a cab back to Metro.

I think this was my favorite D.C. excursion that I’ve been on so far. Although the National Gallery of Art and Monticello are way up there on my list, I think the Douglass house strikes me most because of the man he was. His work to free slaves and give women equal rights was like no other. In his words, “I have never been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s rights to participate in civil government, which did not equally apply to the right of woman.”

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