Washington is an African-American city with all-too-few monuments to its greatest African-American citizens. Cedar Hill is one of the finest. Abolitionist, author, political giant, and escaped slave Frederick Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life at this estate in the hills of Anacostia. Just across the Anacostia River from the Capitol and White House, but still within city boundaries, Cedar Hill was a pilgrimage spot for the journalists, fans, and power players who came to visit Douglass from 1877 until his death in 1895.
The grounds of Cedar Hill are lovely—it sits on top of one of the highest and steepest hills in Anacostia, with incredible views of downtown—but you can only go inside the house on a free guided tour with a National Park Service ranger. It’s worth making the reservation. Douglass paid $6,700 for the house—$1.3 million in 2017 dollars, according to the guide—and it’s showy and lots of fun. The walls are lined with portraits of great abolitionists—John Brown, Wendell Phillips—and of Douglass and his wives and children.
The house has the huge easy chair where the Lion of Anacostia received visitors, the desk where he wrote his famous speeches, the household gadgets he liked to collect (at least four different kinds of iron), and his very own dumbbells. The bedroom of his first wife, Anna, was sealed up after she died, but is open now. When he married his secretary Helen Pitts a couple of years after Anna’s death, she took the bedroom next door, which still has Helen’s typewriter and sewing machine. The ranger, with deep enthusiasm, may even point out the exact spot in the foyer where Douglass dropped dead in 1895.
Not on the tour, but visible on the grounds, is Douglass’s Growlery, a stone cottage that he kept as a private study.
Know Before You Go
The grounds and modest visitor center are open to everyone, but you can only see the house on a guided tour. Reservations are strongly recommended, if not quite required. You can reserve at https://www.recreation.gov/tourList.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=77812.