Washington DC

Visiting Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill Estate in Washington D.C.

When I visited Cedar Hill estate, the last home where Frederick Douglass lived for 17 years, I thought I saw his ghost.

I had just finished the National Park Service’s docent tour of the home in Anacostia. My brain had a few cobwebs as my thoughts darted back to 1877 when Frederick and his wife Anna moved into their new home. Sitting on a hill at what is one of the highest points in Washington DC, this home overlooks the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol

Reluctant to leave my journey into the past of one of America’s most famous abolitionists, I lingered on the porch to rest in the rocking chair.

I could just picture Frederick and his wife sitting here in the evening, watching the sunset in the nation’s capital.

Frederick Douglass’ Ghost

Then I stood up to walk across the wide swath of lawn and descend the staircase to the Visitor’s Center. But I stopped short as Frederick Douglass looked up at me quizzically.

Did his ghost wander the property in broad daylight? 

Well, not his ghost but his reenactor. This man had played the role of Douglass Frederick at events at Cedar Hill for nearly two decades. He was an elderly man now with white hair and beard. He wore the suit and pants of a well-attired 19th-century gentleman. He kindly let me take his photo on the stairs. Then after chatting for a while, I proceeded to my car, while he joined the celebrants at the Frederick Douglass birthday celebration.

His Story

Since Douglass was born a slave, he did not know his birthday. Our NPS docent said he chose February 14. Douglass also estimated 1818 as the year he was born on the Holme Hill farm in Maryland (Talbot County).

Before he was 30, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 

“Frederick Douglass spent his life fighting for justice and equality. Born into slavery in 1818, he escaped as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement.”

National Park Service

After a fire destroyed his home in Rochester, Douglass moved to Washington, DC, in 1872. He published the New National Era newspaper and served briefly as President of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes named him the first Black U.S. marshal. He spent his final 17 years at Cedar Hill, located at 1411 W Street SE, Washington DC.

Cedar Hill

Since Cedar Hill celebrates Black History Month and Douglas’ birthday in February, there were big groups to tour Cedar Hill. You must register in advance for a docent tour or check with the staff at the Visitor’s Center for a last-minute cancellation.

Our DC Culture Meetup group was too large, so we were divided into two groups on the porch. It is difficult to take more than 10-15 people on a tour since it includes standing in hallways and a kitchen pantry.

Docent Tour

We began the tour at the side of the house, entering the laundry and ironing room adjacent to the kitchen. Anna and her daughters would wash and iron his clothes here.

We next entered the indoor kitchen, which was an oddity at this time as many homeowners feared kitchen fires. They chose to build a separate kitchen that was not attached to the house. Douglass’ house included many modern features, such as a stove and water pump.

Bedrooms

Our guide then led us up the staircase to see the bedrooms for the family. Frederick chose to permanently preserve the bedroom of Anna, who died just four years after moving into Cedar Hill. We also saw the bedroom of his second wife, activist Helen Pitts. 

Although you are not blocked from entering the bedrooms, you can see 19th-century artifacts, such as homemade quilts, wooden nightstands, family portraits, and ceramics. 

Dining Room

We then descended the staircase to view the dining room. (We couldn’t tour the front living room area or parlor as there was a private tour for the U.S. Senate delegation. The Secret Service stood in the hallway.)

Our guide told us that Douglass’ dining room chair was customized with rollers on the bottom of the chair legs. This prevented him from tipping out of his chair when he was speaking excitedly.

The magnificent dining room hosted many famous people who traveled to Washington DC to see “The Lion of Anacostia,” which was Frederick Douglass’ nickname. He would hold forth about the many issues of the day that worried him about the nation’s future, including social justice, equity, and the rights of African Americans.

End of Tour

The tour ended full circle in the pantry, where cans of food were stocked on the shelves. Our guide showed us the paw print of the family’s dog, saved for posterity on the kitchen floor.

Cedar Hill was a special place with Frederick Douglass. Writing to his son Charles, he confessed how much he missed being at home.

“I shall rejoice when I can again plant my feet on Cedar Hill.”

Frederick Douglass

The Growlery

But my tour had not ended as I wanted to see The Growlery. Douglass built a rustic stone cabin on the property where he could seek privacy to write. Nestled at the edge of the lawn at the back of the house, it features a fireplace, writing desk, and chair. (Douglass also kept a couch in his rustic retreat.)

There is a plaque in front of the cabin, which describes it as a rustic retreat. “Where do you go when you do not want to be disturbed? Frederick Douglass came to this tiny stone cabin that he called the Growlery. Coined by Charles Dickens, the word “Growlery” literally means a place to growl!

The current cabin is a reconstruction of the old stone cabin built in 1981. The carpenters salvaged materials from the original building. The structure was rebuilt in the exact location of the Growlery.

One can easily imagine Frederick talking to himself or indeed “growling” as he retreated to this workspace. 

Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Association

Douglass’ second wife (Helen Pitts Douglass) created the Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Association after he died. She wanted to preserve his legacy. In her will, she also bequeathed Cedar Hill to the association. Her mission was clear:

 “make [Cedar Hill] a national monument and memorial to the memory of her illustrious husband.”

National Park Service

In 1962, the National Park Service acquired Cedar Hill. Then in 1988, the estate was designated the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Today, the NPS welcomes school children, visitors, and residents to tour the 19th-century home and examine Frederick Douglass’s belongings. You should start in the Visitors’ Center, where you can watch a short film about Douglass. You’ll also want to look at the photographs, read his famous quotes, and explore the historical plaques about key moments in the famous statesman’s life.

NPS Notes

The site’s centerpiece is the historic house, which sits on top of a 50-foot hill and eight acres of the original estate. Restored to its 1895 appearance, the house is furnished with original objects that belonged to Frederick Douglass and other household members.

A typical visit lasts about 1.5 hours. Things to do include touring the historic house, looking at exhibits, watching the film, and exploring the grounds.

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  • Shenise
    February 17, 2024 at 9:39 am

    Great post on this remarkable man. ❤️

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 9:44 am

      Thank you. I can’t wait to return again as I missed some of the rooms on the tour.

  • San
    February 17, 2024 at 9:39 am

    Visiting Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill Estate in Washington D.C. was a truly enriching experience. The preserved home of this iconic abolitionist and statesman provided a profound insight into his life and contributions. The meticulously maintained estate, with its period furnishings and captivating exhibits, offered a poignant journey through history. Exploring the rooms where Douglass lived and worked, overlooking the capital city, felt like stepping into the past. It’s a must-visit for anyone seeking a deep appreciation of the extraordinary legacy left by Frederick Douglass.

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 9:43 am

      Truly poetical! I agree. It is as if the clock stopped in 1895 when you visit Cedar Hill.

  • Laureen Lund
    February 17, 2024 at 9:41 am

    Why have I not been here? I wish we had done this last spring when we were in DC. Well I know we will visit again. A great post with lots of great information. Saving for my next visit.

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 9:42 am

      Cedar Hill closed during the Pandemic and only recently reopened. It might have been closed during your trip back to DC. You must visit!

  • Linda
    February 17, 2024 at 10:16 am

    How interesting, love a good ghost story 🙂

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 10:17 am

      Well actually a reenactor appearance.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    February 17, 2024 at 11:54 am

    So many great spots to explore the history of the U.S. on your travels. A visit to the Cedar Hill estate sure seems like a good way to learn more about Frederick Douglass. A sad chapter in U.S. history but this story tells so much about the people who worked so hard to make changes.

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 5:24 pm

      We are so lucky to have these National Historic sites to visit.

  • Hannah
    February 17, 2024 at 3:33 pm

    What a wonderful, empowering visit. You learn so much visiting these historical sites and get a glimpse of life being born into slavery and how it impacted the modern world. I loved seeing a slice of Douglass’ world in the Growlery!

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 5:23 pm

      The Growlery was my favorite place at Cedar Hill. I could just imagine Douglass writing his speeches or working on a newspaper article in his stone cabin.

  • Jolayne
    February 17, 2024 at 3:59 pm

    If you’re going to choose your own birthday, Valentine’s Day seems perfect!

  • Sharyn
    February 17, 2024 at 5:21 pm

    It is very sobering learning about American history by actually seeing it at historical sites. What a great post this is.

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 5:22 pm

      I am so glad to tour his beloved final home and see it as looked nearly 130 years ago.

  • Amanda
    February 17, 2024 at 6:57 pm

    What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon! There is so much to learn from Fredrick Douglas – getting to stand where he stood and see where he lived is a wonderful experience!

    • Terri
      February 17, 2024 at 8:50 pm

      I only regret that I didn’t do the tour sooner. It is a fantastic history lesson.

  • Hannah
    February 18, 2024 at 2:42 pm

    What a fascinating place to visit! I’d love to go and learn more about the history. February sounds like a great time to visit! I would have jumped out of my skin when I crossed paths with that reenactor! He really does look the part! Thanks for the great guide!

    • Terri
      February 19, 2024 at 5:31 am

      Yes I think I did jump about two feet in the air when I saw him coming up the steps. I wound love to see the children’s reaction when he delivers a famous speech.

  • Margaret McKneely
    February 18, 2024 at 3:55 pm

    This is something on my DC list that I haven’t checked off yet! Douglass was such an amazing figure in American history and I’d love to visit this part of his life.

  • Maggie McKneely
    February 18, 2024 at 3:55 pm

    This is something on my DC list that I haven’t checked off yet! Douglass was such an amazing figure in American history and I’d love to visit this part of his life.

    • Terri
      February 19, 2024 at 5:29 am

      I hope you get to visit Cedar Hill. It is quite remarkable. And the grounds are beautiful.

  • Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    February 20, 2024 at 10:16 am

    Wow! Cedar Hill is beautiful and sounds
    Very interesting!
    I definitely would like to have a Growlery room as well
    Thanks Terri

    • Terri
      February 24, 2024 at 11:06 am

      I need a Growlery room! It is the writer’s dream.