Big House, Up Close: Cedar Hill

Cedar Hill is a mansion in D.C. that is famous for being the last home of abolitionist, author, orator, civil servant, and former slave Frederick Douglass.

A Brief Look at the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born around 1817 on the Wye Plantation. His exact date of birth is unknown. The Wye Plantation was located on the Maryland portion of the Eastern Shore. It’s easy to say that he led a truly remarkable life during a time of great change in the United States—change in which he was a pivotal player. He was born into slavery and lived with his grandmother Betty Bailey because his mother died when he was young. He was chosen to reside in a plantation owner’s home, who it is said may have fathered him. He learned to read and write covertly as a child when he was sent to live in Baltimore in the home of Hugh Auld. Auld’s daughter Sophia taught him, though it was banned, as did others in the neighborhood. He taught other slaves to read, began to speak for abolitionist groups, and was abused by a “slave breaker.” He was later able to escape slavery by fleeing to Massachusetts with the help of a free black woman, Anna Murray, whom he would later marry.The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site shares one of his most famous quotes:

“I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong.”

He is well known for publishing many memoirs which shed light on African American life of his day, notably the 1845 bestseller, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He lived in England for a period of his life when avoiding recapture into slavery, and lectured there as well. Eventually his English supporters bought his freedom and he was able to return to the U.S. Upon his return he worked in the Underground Railroad, ran an abolitionist newspaper, and supported women’s rights as well. He is known to have believed in equality for all well before it was a commonly accepted stance, including for Native Americans and recent immigrants to the U.S. He influenced President Lincoln in passing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He also served as a U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, an Ambassador to Haiti, and the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. His appointment to the post of U.S. Marshal for D.C. was especially historic in that it was the first successful federal appointment requiring Senate approval for a black male.

Life at Cedar Hill

In 1878 Douglass purchased the Cedar Hill house in southeast D.C. for $6,700 and moved in with his wife Anna, with whom he had five children. He immediately enlarged the estate overlooking the U.S. capital, which he named for its cedar trees. The site has been originally purchased around 1855 by John Van Hook, who built the original house. Van Hook was an architect and prospector and imbued the large brick, painted house with its Gothic Revival style and Greek Revival Doric columns. Van Hook, along with other developers, had also purchased 100 acres of land in 1854 and formed the Uniontown neighborhood, now known as Anacostia. It was from this group of developers that Douglass purchased his home.

Douglass, the only black homeowner of the time in a wealthy white neighborhood, purchased additional acreage around the house and added ten rooms, including a library and study (below). His house became the largest on the street during his lifetime. The library which can now be visited by tourists contains an iron stove and Douglass’ large wooden desk, as well as his Bible and several of his diaries (below).

Douglass lived at Cedar Hill for the last 17 years of his life. His wife Anna died in 1882. Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts, was younger, white, and was a former clerk of Douglass. Their families did not approve of their interracial union. Rose O’Keefe’s book, Frederick & Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All, shares that Helen said in an interview,

“Love came to me and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”

Douglass died at his home in 1895 after attending a women’s rights rally in D.C. with Susan B. Anthony. After his death Helen worked with Congress to establish the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, based at Cedar Hill, in 1900. The National Association of Colored Women became co-owners in 1916 and later the Federal Government bought the property to take over its preservation in 1962. In the 60’s and 70’s, the National Park Service renovated the house extensively (interior and porch below).


Cedar Hill, also now known as The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, reopened after renovations in 1972.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is open to visitors at 1411 W St., SE in Anacostia. It went through a major $2.7 million restoration project between 2004 and 2007. Visitors who tour the house can now also see a reconstruction of a small stone building on the grounds where Douglass worked and studied privately, called the “Growlery” (below). A growlery is a place to growl, or to retreat to when feeling “ill humored.” Charles Dickens is thought to have coined the word in “Bleak House.”

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is scheduled to be on an America the Beautiful Coin in 2017. Every year they host an oratorical contest for children in grades 1-12 to honor and keep alive the love of language that Douglass is known to have experienced and stood for. Please enjoy a video of first grade winner Brent Wood reciting a Douglass’ powerful words below (opens in new window).


Julia Travers

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