Renaissance Man

Frederick Douglass’s home tells the story of a man who overcame enormous obstacles and paved the way for others to do the same.


By Scott Kirkwood


Take the Green Line  subway train to Anacostia, in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Walk past the Thurgood Marshall Academy on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue., past the Baptist churches, the barber shops, and the colorful row houses, and you’ll find a house perched high on a hilltop. The man who lived in this house launched a civil-rights movement long before Marshall and MLK had landmarks named after them, long before the term “civil rights” even existed.

Walk into the visitor center at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, just steps from the Douglass home, and you’ll hear a park volunteer repeat the words highlighted in the park’s short film: “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate,” she says. “What does the agitator in a washing machine do?" the volunteer asks the group of visitors, mostly children. “It moves things around, it stirs the pot, right? That’s what Frederick Douglass did.” And he encouraged others to follow his lead, amassing an enormous list of achievements for a black man born in the early 19th century—or, in fact, for any person of any race, born in any era. 

Frederick Bailey was born into slavery on a farm outside Easton, Maryland, in 1818. (After escaping from slavery in 1838, he would change his name to Douglass, to avoid being recaptured.) When he was only 8 years old, his slave master’s wife taught him to read, using the Bible—a move that could have landed her in prison. When she was forced to stop, a young Douglass tricked other children into teaching him one letter of the alphabet at a time, according to Braden Paynter, an interpretive ranger at the park.  

“Words were the lever that Douglass used to change the world,” says Paynter. “And he was always making arguments. In fact, this house is an argument. It says, ‘I am a gentleman, and you must treat me as one.’”

As visitors entered the home, they were taken into the living room, which still contains busts common to Victorian homes of the time. The wallpaper features colorful tropical plants, a symbol of Douglass’s work as the U.S. minister to Haiti under the Benjamin Harrison Administration. To the right of the entrance is the sitting room, where Douglass would teach his grandchildren history lessons or show them how to play the violin. Beyond the living room is the study, where he would spend up to five hours a day paging through one of the thousands of books he owned or drafting speeches and correspondence with friends and associates, including Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, and Mark Twain.

How did Douglass rise from a slave to a member of Washington’s elite? When he was 20 years old, he borrowed papers from a free black sailor and escaped from slavery, moving to New York, then New Bedford, Massachusetts. He soon befriended William Lloyd Garrison and other key figures in the abolitionist movement, who urged him to share his own experiences. Douglass’s stirring speeches became a powerful tool in the battle against slavery, and, ultimately, one of the chief ways he would earn a living. In fact, Douglass was such a skilled speaker that some people began to doubt he was a fugitive slave. To prove them wrong, he wrote his first autobiography in 1845, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which he related his early years, including his original name and his owner's name; the move raised his public profile even more, and put his freedom in jeopardy once again.

To avoid being recaptured, Douglass fled to England, Scotland, and Ireland. British supporters were so impressed with Douglass that they purchased his freedom from his owners for $711. Douglass returned to the United States a free man and settled in Rochester, New York, a hotbed of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

Soon Douglass began advocating for political activism, using tactics that would gain popularity in the civil rights movement 100 years later. At one point in the early 1840s, he staged a one-man sit-in on a segregated train car in Massachusetts, which drew wide public attention. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that fugitive slaves could be captured in a free state, returned, and enslaved once again, Douglass even considered resorting to violence; just before the Civil War, he thought about leaving the country for good.

But eventually, he saw the Civil War as a necessary evil that would bathe the nation in blood that might cleanse it of its sins. Douglass tried to persuade President Lincoln of the moral imperative of ending slavery, and he was successful.

“In 1864, at Lincoln’s second inaugural, he says, ‘Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,’” says Paynter. “That’s Douglass starting to get to Lincoln, who eventually realizes the need to link slavery and the war’s outcome.”

After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, Douglass moved to the home in Washington, D.C., where he would serve as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and the District’s Recorder of Deeds.

Douglass died on February 20, 1895, at the age of 77. But, his words live on as a testament to his work:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want the rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both... but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2013 issue.

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