The Home of an American Renaissance Man

Cross the Anacostia River into the Southeast quadrant of the city, and you’ll find a smaller, less frequented park packed with American history — the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
NPS Photo

Trips to Washington, D.C., are often crammed with snapping photos along the National Mall and spending time at the Smithsonian museums. But nearby, an American icon is commemorated a mere 53 miles from where he was born into slavery.

The Northwest quadrant of our nation’s capital offers much to tourists and natives alike, but cross the Anacostia River into the Southewast quadrant of the city, and you'll find a smaller, less frequented park packed with American history — the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

A large two story house

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

NPS Photo / Flickr

If visiting on morning in August, the air is already thick with humidity by 8 a.m. — just as it would have been in Douglass’ time. Small group tours must be reserved online and are the only way to see the interior of the home. Meet your tour in the visitor center and enjoy a 19-minute video for an excellent overview of Douglass’s entire life. Next, climb the hill and meet a park ranger at Douglass’ front door. 

The home has been impeccably preserved and looks just as it did during Douglass’ life. He purchased the home in 1877 while serving as the U.S. Marshal in Washington, D.C. under President Hayes. From the porch of Cedar Hill, look out to Maryland where Douglass was born and enslaved, then over the Anacostia River towards the Capitol where Douglass served as the U.S. Marshal. Inside, you’ll find two drawing rooms, one for formal acquaintances, and a second for family and close friends.  

A portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1878, taken in Rochester, New York. Douglass wears a Cossack hat, now part of the collection at the park site.

Frederick Douglass

NPS Photo

See where he enjoyed dinner, presiding over the meal at the head of the table. Walk through the pantry and kitchen, taking note of the lives of people living in 1800s — long before running water or refrigerators. Climb the stairs and peek inside the bedrooms and trunk room. Throughout the house, the park ranger will expertly discuss Douglass's life, point out important characters and events portrayed in photos, and answer your questions with an incredible breadth of information.

Even those who are well-versed on Douglass’s life will leave the tour with a new understanding of and appreciation for this iconic man. In addition to being an abolitionist and orator, Douglass was also a husband and grandfather. He was a Renaissance man who taught other enslaved people to read and taught himself to play the violin in a matter of days. He was an active sportsman and loved to watch boxing. Each day he walked six miles to the Capitol and back, and you’ll note a pair of hand weights left sitting in his room. Many of the objects in the home point to his sense of humor and warm personality — a painting of a scene from Othello which he gifted his second wife (perhaps a gag gift given their interracial marriage), or the wheels on his dinner chair, necessary for if he happened to spring up amidst conversation (which he apparently did quite often).

A small violin and a bow sit upright on a wooden chair

Frederick Douglass's violin

NPS Photo / Terry Adams

The tour ends back in the front hall, where Douglass is said to have spent his last moments before suffering a heart attack. When your group disperses, wander to the “Growlery” in the back of the house, a small stone building where Douglass was able to leave distractions behind and think.  

Excited to visit the home for yourself? Arrive early to explore the exhibit and leave time afterward to sit on top of the hill, look out over the city and contemplate Douglass’ legacy. In a city filled with shopping, politicians, museums, and monuments, this house on a hill offers a slower-paced trip to another time.

Douglass did much to further liberty, brotherhood, and citizenship in this country. Though he lived over 100 years ago, his life and writings still reverberate with those who seek equality and human rights today. Since 2011, the National Park Foundation has funded projects in step with Frederick Douglass’ legacy, bringing students, teachers and visitors to the park to celebrate oratory, art, freedom, and equality. When you visit D.C., be sure to cross the Anacostia River to #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque. 


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