By Megan Card
It took a Sunday morning spent in the home of Frederick Douglass for me to realize my ninth-grade American history class failed me.
I’m ashamed to write this, but I didn’t know anything about the man other than he was a former slave turned abolitionist. Taking a tour of Cedar Hill, his house in Southeast Washington, seemed to be the logical first step to learn more about him.
An 1980s video at the visitor center included a lot of dramatic pause-for-effect moments and covered Douglass’ historical relevance from slave to emancipation orator.
But the most intimate facts about the abolitionist’s life came from the guided tour of his hilltop home, courtesy of the National Park Service. Here are a few tidbits.
1. Frederick Douglass changed his name, twice.
Douglass didn’t go as far as NBA player Metta World Peace, but he was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey as a slave in Talbot County, Md. When he escaped in 1838 and married Anna Murray, a free woman, they adopted the surname Johnson. He then decided to change his name, again. A friend chose the name Douglas, from Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake,” and Douglass added an “S.”
2. He didn’t shy away from the camera.
The former slave was the most photographed man of his time. Apparently, Douglass was not a fan of sitting still for portraits. He surpassed President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George Armstrong Custer with 160 photographs taken of him during the 19th century.
3. Frederick Douglass had a 19th century “man cave.”
This sounds strange, but it’s true – kind of. Behind the main house, Cedar Hill, there is a small rustic building called a growlery. Douglass would retreat to the space to read, think and write undisturbed when he didn’t want to use one of the multiple offices in his home.
Douglass was a world traveler. He ventured to Europe and Africa, but it was his trips to Haiti that left a noticeable impression on his home. One of his parlors is decorated with palm tree wallpaper and other elements incorporate a Haitian theme.
5. Douglass preferred wheels on his chairs.
In the dining room of Cedar Hill, a chair at the end of the table has wheels attached to its legs. Douglass was known for large mannerisms when he spoke. He had the wheels put on his dining room chair so he wouldn’t tip over if he started to move around in his seat.
6. He fought for the vote with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The abolitionist is known for his work for equality and justice for African Americans, but he also was a vocal supporter for women’s rights. He and Stanton, a leading figure in the early women’s right movement, spoke at the famed Seneca Falls Convention and argued for a woman’s right to vote.
7. He married a white woman.
After the death of his first wife, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from New York who was 20 years his junior. His four adult children and Pitts’ abolitionist parents were vocal critics of their nuptials. Even so, the two were married for 11 years until Douglass’ death on Feb. 20, 1895. He left Cedar Hill to Pitts in his will, but the will was invalid because he only had two, not three witness signatures. Pitts bought the house from his children and spent the rest of her life turning it into a museum to commemorate his life’s work. The National Park Service acquired the house in 1962.