By Chrisleen Herard,
Special to the AFRO
Social reformer, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass is most known for his speech entitled, “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?”
His powerful words left a mark that extended past the meeting hall’s walls and throughout history, making the July 4, 2023 re-opening of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site all the more important. The site has been closed due to renovations and a world pandemic.
Over the course of the past month, visitors have been able to learn more about his life story and study the intricate details of artifacts in his home.
“I think that it is great that the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is reopening, it has been a long time coming,” said historian John McCaskill. “They closed to make improvements on the HVAC system and to further enhance the visitors’ experience which, as far as I know, has been completed. Arguably during the 19th century the most prolific civil rights leader of the time was Mr. Douglass, and his story must be told.”
While Douglass was alive, many told stories of the beautiful solemn sounds of the violin bounced off the walls in his home whenever he played for his grandchildren in the west parlor. The east parlor, decorated with marble statues of Roman gods, was where Douglass played checkers with his guests and entertained them with conversation of literature and politics. In the library, he would read and write for hours and in the dining room, he sat at the head of the table and told lively stories.
McCaskill echoed the sentiments and words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, saying “if you don’t see yourself in history–if you don’t have a worthwhile tradition–you will be relegated to a place of negligibility in the sight of the world, and then you will be on the verge of extinction. This story needs to be told, and the next generation of leaders need to see it.”
The effects of Douglass’ legacy can be seen as his grandson, Joseph, who later became one of the first Black world renowned violinists. He honed his skills by listening to Douglass play the songs learned when he was a slave in his earlier life. Douglass was roughly 20 years old when he escaped the shackles of servitude.
“The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me,” Douglass wrote in his autobiography. “It was life and death with me. But I remained firm, and, according to my resolution, on the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains…”
Douglass’ escape allowed him to challenge and fight against slavery’s existence until he died, and he became a monumental pillar in the Black community that is still celebrated today in his home, now recognized as a national historic site and museum.
“I remember hearing in elementary school that we were going to see a historical landmark located in the heart of Southeast D.C.,” said D.C. native Brianna Walker. “Stepping off of the B2 bus line, there was an old white and red house surrounded by a grassy field and a tall gate. The first thing that stood out about his home was the beautiful elongated southern style porch.”
Walker told the AFRO she is excited to take her own children to the site.
“Now I get to educate my children on not only his assistance in ensuring the emancipation proclamation passed, but the fact that they were born in the same city where so many prominent figures in history took some type of stance in,” she said.
Photographer Gabriel Craft sent a statement to the AFRO about his experience, characterizing it as “a hopeful and inspiring place for all Americans, as Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, yet became free and spent his life working for the rights of African Americans and also women.
“The docent-led tour was wonderful and definitely worth waiting for,” wrote Craft.
Another visitor recounted the time they visited the Douglass home.
“When I went to the Frederick Douglass house, it was a spur of the moment decision, as we hadn’t heard of the museum and were in the area,” said Christian Henderson-West, a brand strategist at Henderson-West and Company.
“Looking out from the porch of the home you can see wide and beautiful views of D.C. and the colorful and peaceful homes of the historical Anacostia neighborhood. Walking away, you feel an immense pride looking out onto the world and knowing that Frederick Douglass and all his identities shared the same view. To know that it’s a majority black neighborhood and this is serving as an anchor, it helps preserve the roots of culture during times where those would advocate for the opposite and provide a reminder for what can be possible when we work to move forward.”