A grand old house sits atop Cedar Hill across the Anacostia River; it’s in this building that abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent the last 18 years of his life.
Douglass moved into the house at 1411 W St. SE in 1878 after a seven-year stint of living on Capitol Hill (passers-by can see his old residence at 316 A St. NE) and just after Reconstruction had ended.
When Douglass died in 1895, despite his contributions to the United States and because much of the country was in the height of passing Jim Crow laws, it was unlikely that anyone would create a memorial for him, National Park Service Ranger Braden Paynter said.
Douglass’ wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, got Congress to create the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association at the beginning of the 20th century. After her death in 1903, the association received the property, which was maintained by the group and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs for the next six decades.
In 1962, the house became a part of the NPS and was thus called the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. It went through a major restoration from 2004 to 2007.
The site, which holds several of Douglass’ possessions, serves as a physical landmark of American history from the Civil War in the 1860s to the beginning of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s.
“To explain the world that Dr. King is facing, you have to take note of Frederick Douglass,” Paynter said. “He’s born into and then confronts the world of slavery. He then has this great hope of Reconstruction. The [Klu Klux] Klan is created in his lifetime. In terms of continuity, that ends up being the segregated world King struggles with.”
The site is open daily. Its winter hours, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., start this weekend.
Anacostia Community Museum
Also across the river is one of the Smithsonian’s less-frequented museums, the Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE).
The museum first opened as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967 to reach out to people in the Anacostia community who weren’t visiting the museums on the Mall, Museum Director Camille Giraud Akeju said.
“They didn’t see themselves reflected in the museum,” Akeju said. “There was a sense of isolation.”
Led by founder John Kinard, the museum aimed to be relevant to the African-American experience by representing the neighborhood’s culture through various exhibits, programs and lectures. The museum succeeded in its mission, even after Kinard’s death in 1989.
But when the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, the question arose: Is there a need for two museums with the same philosophy and vision?
That’s when the Anacostia museum shifted its focus to community issues rather than African-American issues. Its name officially became the Anacostia Community Museum in 2006.
But that doesn’t mean the museum is no longer connected to its roots.