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Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
While his exact date of birth is unknown, Douglass selected Feb. 14 based on a nickname given to him by his mother—her “little valentine.”
The famed abolitionist and orator lived in the District from 1878 until his death in 1895. Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, is now operated by the National Park Service as a museum that keeps safe many of his prized possessions. “Mr. Douglass was a conscious collector,” says curator Ka’mal McClarin. That is to say the artifacts and objects in Douglass’ D.C. home meant something to him. This includes his extensive book and art collection, a rolltop desk housed in his library, and a cane willed to him by President Abraham Lincoln.
The 197th anniversary of Douglass’ birth will be celebrated Friday and Saturday throughout the neighborhood he called home. Tours of Cedar Hill begin Saturday at noon and will be preceded by an opening ceremony featuring the young winners of the annual Oratorical Contest at the Anacostia Playhouse. See a full listing of events at nps.gov/frdo/birthday-celebration.htm.
Ball-and-Chain Curtain Tie Backs, West Parlor The tie backs “acted as a constant reminder of Mr. Douglass’ early life,” curator McClarin says.
Pen, Library A pen NPS believes Douglass gnawed on is part of the collection. “It really demonstrates how much Douglass was really in deep thought,” McClarin says. It also signifies part of his trajectory from slave to freedom. “It’s this idea that he uses his voice and a pen to progressively move the country forward,” he says. “He was a radical with his pen and his voice.”
The Columbian Orator, Library Douglass purchased this collection of texts—a guide of sorts for people who want to become orators—for 50 cents when he was a teenager in Baltimore. It includes a dialogue between a slave owner and enslaved person on the subject of emancipation. “That was a transformative text that really allowed him to think about securing his own liberty and securing liberty for others,” McClarin says. Not only did Douglass escape slavery with the book, he saved it from his Rochester, N.Y., home as it burned to the ground.
While visitors to Cedar Hill may remark upon its furnishings, which may appear grand but were at the time middle class, site manager Julie Kutruff notes that Douglass’ “expensive” book collection speaks to what he finds most “precious.”
Chair with Wheels, Dining Room Just one chair in Cedar Hill’s dining room, the one used by Douglass, is equipped with wheels. “Not only is he this great speaker that does a lot of public oration, but he’s also somebody that when he has guests at the table, he’s a storyteller,” says Kutruff. The wheels allowed Douglass to act out his stories and move around the room. “Even at home… he’s somebody people listen to and want to listen to, because he’s animated enough to tell these stories,” she says.
Traveling Trunk, Second Floor Trunk Room McClarin: “Here’s a man that started out as an enslaved person on a plantation [who was] able to acquire a passport and travel the world.”
Violin, West Parlor The family parlor contains multiple instruments, including a violin, which Douglass taught himself to play. “He encouraged other family members to play instruments, too,” she says. (Indeed, his grandson, Joseph Douglass, become a famous concert violinist.) “We have a tambourine that they would give the visitors. You’d be encouraged to clap or sing or play the tambourine.”