Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknown artist, 1844, National Portrait Gallery in WashingtonD.C.,

Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknown artist, 1844, National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.. The NPG placard describes it as a ‘powerful portrait’ but I’m not particularly impressed, especially since I don’t think it looks like Douglass at all.

Fourteenth Day, Saturday, April 2nd

After a morning glancing at the light rainfall through the coffee shop window as I write up some notes and look up some things in preparation for the day, I begin my day’s explorations with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s at 8th and F Streets NW, its official address: unusually, it lacks a street number.

While I’m here primarily to see all the Douglass portraits I can find and have little time to spare since it’s my last day in D.C., I’ve wanted to visit the Portrait Gallery for a long time, and allow myself an extra hour to explore.

After I’ve made my inquiries at the information desk, one of the first portraits that grab my attention as I head towards my first destination is a bust of Louisa May Alcott. As you may remember from my Boston account, she was the only one willing to sit next to Douglass and his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass at Wendell Phillips’ funeral in 1884, just about a month after their marriage. You see, Helen was white, and even for that gathering of committed abolitionists, this interracial marriage was going more than a bit farther than their still rudimentary sense of human equality would allow.

The bust is an excellent likeness of Alcott, unlike the portrait of Douglass I’m seeking. It was painted in 1844 by an unknown artist. When I find it, unfortunately, I’m not impressed: it’s a nice enough painting if it portrayed just any man, but the figure I see here looks nothing like Douglass. Douglass was the son of a black mother and a white father, and his features reflected his mixed ancestry. But African ancestry is not nearly as discernible in the face in this portrait as it was in Douglass’: it just looks a little more tan, and with curlier hair, than the average white guy. Perhaps the portrait painter was not very used to, or comfortable with, portraying people other than those of European descent. Or, perhaps he wanted to emphasize Douglass’ European ancestry for other reasons. I’m very glad Douglass was an ardent fan of photography and commissioned so many portraits of himself in that medium. The camera presents an unbiased view so long as the light is good.

Left, bust of Louisa May Alcott. RAbraham Lincoln a month before his second inauguration, portrait by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Left, bust of Louisa May Alcott, sculpted by Frank Edwin Elwell, 1891. Right, Abraham Lincoln a month before his second inauguration, portrait by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Frederick Douglass photograph, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, 2016 by Amy CoolsI find a couple more portraits of Douglass, one an original photograph from 1876, and the other an 1845 lithograph of the sheet music cover reproduced in the Lynn Historical Society and Museum, which I featured at the beginning of my Lynn account. I go on to see many more portraits I’m excited about, but I won’t include them here for time’s sake since they’re not really relevant to Douglass’ story, except for the photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln I find in the presidential portrait gallery. It was taken just a little more than two months before he was assassinated. Though photos of Douglass’ sometimes friend Lincoln often show him looking careworn and even rather disheveled during the course of the war, here, his hair is in place even if characteristically casually swept back and to the side, and his half-smile in the softly glowing light makes him look relaxed, even a bit day-dreamy.

Then I head to the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, just across First Street from the Capitol Building. For one thing, it’s my favorite place to be inside in Washington D.C., so even if I didn’t have some last-minute Douglass research to do, I would still swing by. As it turns out, however, it has an indirect yet significant relation to Douglass’ life. More specifically, to the last day of his life. As I mention in yesterday’s account, Douglass and his wife Helen were driven to the Congressional Library (better known today as the Library of Congress), where he was dropped off prior to attending the National Council of Women’s meeting, which started at ten a.m. and went until the afternoon. But the Library of Congress was not yet located in the grand Jefferson Building which was still under construction just across the street from the Capitol. It wouldn’t move in for two more years, in 1897. But Douglass would have seen the new Library it when it was well on its way to completion, and he would surely have appreciated its already obvious splendor.

Reading Room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress

The main reading room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. How I love to read in this beautiful place!

I do some research here in the beautiful main Reading Room for a couple of hours, especially in John Muller’s excellent book Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. I make some great last-minute discoveries, including a site I thought was at a different location. I look at the clock and realize that I’ll have to hustle for the rest of the day to get everywhere I plan to go before meeting my kind hosts back in Baltimore for dinner.

In heading to my nest destination, I pass the Capitol Building again. The Women’s Council meeting that Douglass headed to from the Congressional Library in the Capitol Building was at Menzarott Hall, just a fifteen or twenty minute’s walk away; I discussed that site and that meeting in yesterday’s account. And as discussed in my story of visiting Cedar Hill, Douglass was quite the walker (as I am), and he regularly walked to and from his hilltop home in Anacostia and his D.C. office for work, ten miles round trip. When I walked from the National Portrait Gallery to the Jefferson Building earlier today, and again as I head now to my next destination, I retrace some of yesterday’s route from the Freedman’s Bank Building to the Menzarott Hall site (now covered by the J. Edgar Hoover building) to the Capitol Building. In doing so, I also trace routes Douglass would have walked, including that of the day of his death.

D.C. Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall, Washington, D.C.

D.C. Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall, Washington, D.C.

Lincoln's statue at DC Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall

Lincoln’s statue in front of D.C’s Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall

The grand edifice I find at 451 Indiana Avenue NW was once Old City Hall, where Douglass’ office used to be. It looks very much the same now as it did in Douglass’ time except now the grounds are landscaped and the street in front is paved. In 1877, Douglass was appointed U.S. Marshal of Washington, D.C. by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and he remained in that position until he resigned at the express wish of the newly elected President James Garfield in 1881. Garfield wanted to place a personal friend in that post, and as a sort of consolation prize, he arranged that Douglass be appointed Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C. in 1881. It seemed rather a poor prize since it was a much less prestigious post, but Douglass described the job itself as ‘more congenial to [his] feelings’ (Autobiographies 944) than the job as Marshal, where he had to deal with criminals and the courts. Douglass’ government appointments freed him from the necessity of going out on the lecture circuit for a living, and he used them to improve the lives of his fellow black citizens in other ways, such as helping them to obtain government jobs. Best of all, he was again free to speak and write as he wished, without the constraints placed on a federal officeholder, and he held this post for almost five years.

Frederick Douglass as US Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image, sign at D.C. Court of Appeals

Frederick Douglass as U.S. Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image on a sign across from the D.C. Court of Appeals building where City Hall and Douglass’ offices used to be

When Douglass was a young man, he used to say he wanted to become a senator, but over time, as he spent more time in Washington observing the grind of campaigning and favor-seeking required for running for political office, and the rampant backbiting and smear campaigns, he found he had no desire to go through all that. He himself was the victim of political backbiting, including rumors that he had grown enormously rich at public expense. (Which, by the way, was false.) Yet he always remained keenly interested in politics and called on his fellow black Americans to join him in involving themselves as deeply in the political process as they could. He stumped for many political candidates over his long career, from radical abolitionist Gerrit Smith to centrist Abraham Lincoln.

400 block of 11th St, former site of New National Era offices, Washington DC, 2016 Amy Cools

400 block of 11th St just north of Philadelphia Ave, the former site of the New National Era offices in Washington, D.C.

I’m finding that the time is simply flying by and I start to fear I’ll run out of it. So from now on, I’ll have to drive everywhere instead of walk, since what I have left to see is spread out and I have to travel a large area very quickly. I hate exploring a city by car: you have to pass by things too fast, you can’t stop, approach, and see details at will, and worst of all, you remove yourself from the crowd. I love people watching, catching bits of conversation, observing the ways they ornament and carry themselves, and stopping for a chat whenever the occasions arise.

Anyway, I head east to 11th St NW a little north of Pennsylvania Ave, the former site of The New National Era newspaper offices. They were then on the 400 block of 11th street on ‘Newspaper Row’, and the original address was 418 11th St, in the Star Annex building. Douglass was a corresponding editor when he helped launch The New Era in January of 1870, while his home was still in Rochester. The office used to be about where the sandy-gray building with the arched windows now stands (see the photograph above), or perhaps as far over as the 11th St. entrance to the 1111 Pennsylvania Ave parking garage, which is the large gated driveway with the large gray beam over its windows.

New National Era, Sept 8 1870, with Frederick Douglass as new main editor, image Library of Congress

New National Era, Sept 8 1870, the first edition after Douglass took over as chief editor

The venerable black abolitionist paper The New Era was only about a year old when it suffered an arson attack in 1848, and though the fire nearly destroyed the offices, the paper continued until 1860. The first edition of The New Era which Douglass helped found was published on January 13th, 1870, carrying on the mission of its predecessor: social justice journalism. It was spearheaded at the beginning by editor J. Sella Martin, a fellow escaped slave and abolitionist minister. Douglass’ enthusiasm as he helped launch the project was accompanied by as much trepidation; as he wrote in his Life and Times ‘…Sixteen years’ experience as editor and publisher of my own paper, and the knowledge of the toil and anxiety… caused me much reluctance and hesitation…’ (Autobiographies 836). Just a few months later, there was (likely) an arson attempt on their offices too. Douglass must have been sickened at how often he encountered arson as a tool for the oppression of himself and his people. But the offices remained intact and The New Era continued. When Douglass took over as primary editor in September of that first year, he renamed it The New National Era. He also put a lot of his own money into the venture, losing about nine to ten thousand dollars all told. His two sons Lewis and Charles worked on the paper and eventually took over its operation; they had begun their training in the newspaper trade as young boys working with their father at The North Star‘s press in Rochester. The New National Era continued until early 1974 when Douglass’ sons were forced to shut it down due to its continued financial woes.

Frederick Douglass Hall at Howard U., gated entrance facing 6th St NW, Washington, DC

Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall at Howard University, gated entrance facing onto 6th St NW, Washington, D.C.

Next, I zigzag my way north about 2 1/2 miles to Howard University, at 2400 Sixth St NW. My destination is Douglass Hall, which faces onto Sixth St. It’s between Childers Hall (which adjoins the south end of Cramton Auditorium) and the Carnegie Building, between Howard Lane and Fairmont on the east side of the street. I find out before too long that, as a non-student there, I’m actually not supposed to be on the grounds without having received permission beforehand from the university. When I explain my project to the the security guard, he seems more assured that I’m not just wandering around nosily with no good purpose, but it’s still clear it’s time for me to go. Fortunately, I’ve already found the hall and taken my photos, and he gives no indication that I’m not allowed to take any or to share them. So if you’d like to visit, just remember to call up the university first, regardless of the fact that the D.C. travel guides I’ve seen don’t tell you this.

At its founding in 1867, the historically black university was off to a financially healthy start, with generous funding from the Freedman’s Bureau to augment other government funding, private donations, and tuition. Despite some rocky times here and there over the years, Howard remains an extremely successful endeavor. It’s now, as it’s always been, open to the admission of people of all races, but it still, just as in Douglass’ time, functions as a primarily black institution. Its founder, trustee, and President General Oliver Otis Howard was also the Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau. Howard was a Civil War hero, having lost an arm in the war, who believed strongly in civil rights for black people and was an ardent Christian. He and some other like-minded social reformers initially founded it as a school to train black ministers, but while it still offers degrees in divinity and religious studies, it very quickly and broadly expanded its educational mission. It now includes medicine, philosophy, biochemistry and genetics, fine arts, physics and astronomy, and social work among its diverse fields of study, and is a thriving research center as well. In sum, it’s an institution that Douglass must have heartily approved of.

Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, view facing onto square of Howard University, Washington D.C.

Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall’s east facade facing the Upper Quadrangle in the soft light of early evening

Yet…. Though Douglass was elected to the board of trustee on July 13th, 1871 and remained a member until his death, he didn’t mention his association with this important institution, so near his final home, in his last autobiography Life and Times. This seems somewhat strange. He was very active in the University’s affairs throughout his years as a member, from fundraising to personally donating to voting at board meetings to chairing commissions to writing about it in the newspaper and more, Douglass was so actively involved and admired by the university that he was granted an honorary doctorate. Why he chose not to mention Howard University in his Life and Times remains, it seems, rather inexplicable.

Charlotte Grimke House sandwiched between two apartment buildings, Washington DC

Charlotte Grimké House sandwiched between two apartment buildings, Washington DC

I head south on Georgia Ave then turn right (west) on R St, and arrive at my next destination just past 16th. 1608 R St NW was the home of Charlotte and Francis Grimké. Douglass and his second wife Helen Pitts were married here in the parlor on Jan. 24, 1884. A few days before the wedding, the Reverend Francis Grimké had stopped by Douglass’ office at City Hall because he happened to be passing by. Like Douglass, he and his wife Charlotte were of mixed African and European ancestry and were devoted, very active abolitionists. And Grimké, like Douglass, was an ordained minister, though Douglass had long since given up his role as a man of the cloth. Grimké was pastor of the large congregation of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Yesterday, on my way from the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church to the Freedman’s Bank Building, I passed by the place it used to stand, on the east side of 15th off McPherson Square, between I and K Streets. As Grimké tells it, Douglass was especially glad to see him because he had made up his mind visit Grimké soon. Since he had decided to go ahead and marry the white woman he had fallen in love with, Douglass thought the progressive, mixed-race, widely respected Grimké would be the perfect officiant. Grimké would also prove up to the challenge of handling the inevitable public controversy to follow with equanimity.

Charlotte Grimke House

Charlotte Grimké House

While Grimké learned of Douglass’ plans sort of at the last minute, his own family was not so lucky. Douglass, for reasons still poorly understood, never told his children of his plans to remarry, let alone to a white woman. In fact, they only found out when a reporter stopped by Douglass’ Recorder of Deeds office at City Hall to follow up on his discovery of Douglass’ purchase of a marriage license that morning. His daughter Rosetta, who also worked at the office, was surprised and upset, and the rest of the family no less so when she returned home to Cedar Hill and shared the news. So when Douglass left home again that evening at six to go and wed Helen, none of them accompanied him. The newlyweds returned home again that evening for a wedding supper, and I can only imagine the very awkward tension of that meal.

Douglass’ children never really accepted the marriage, thinking it a betrayal of their mother and her race. Rosetta, evidently, felt this especially. And though Douglass and Helen were very happy in their marriage, the dynamics of family life at Cedar Hill were not always harmonious. The children’s disapproval of Helen’s perceived ‘replacement’ of Anna only added to the troubles of the household. For example, Rosetta was married to a man of dubious integrity who had trouble keeping a job and didn’t always operate within the law. Her husband Nathan Sprague even tried to extort a large sum of money from Douglass because, he claimed, his sister Helen Louisa had supposedly worked for him as a servant. In reality, Douglass had supported his sister as well as Rosetta and their children when Sprague was in jail and otherwise unemployed. Douglass’ children were accomplished in their own right and had many fine qualities, but they also, from time to time, leaned on him for financial support and relied on him to help care for their families. Some of Douglass’ friends thought that they relied on him perhaps a bit too much, and often tried to convince him to require his adult offspring to be more self-reliant, but this father hen found himself unable to hold back when his children asked him for help. Speaking for myself, given the degree to which he took such great pains to secure their happiness, I wish that his children found it in themselves to support this last great romance of his life just a little more.

Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass at Niagara Falls, image public domain via NPS

Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass at Niagara Falls, image public domain via NPS

While Douglass’ children joined the wider world and much of Helen’s family in their disapproval of the marriage, his wife’s mother came to accept it, joined the Cedar Hill household in her later years, and spoke fondly of her son-in-law. His protégée and friend Ida Wells often came to visit them and was outspoken in her support; same goes for the Grimkés. While many abolitionists, black and white, characterized Douglass’ choice of a white wife as Rosetta did, as a replacement or rejection of his first wife’s blackness and lack of formal education, for Douglass it was no such thing. Though he and Anna found themselves at a distance at times because she could not share in so many of his intellectual interests, they were deeply connected in other ways: their shared past as black people struggling to survive in a slave state, her instrumental role in helping him attain his freedom, their struggles together as a young black family on the run from his master while trying to make a living in a racist society, and of course, raising their many children together. With Helen, Douglass was able to share those parts of his intellectual side that he hadn’t been able to share with Anna in the context of a romantic partnership, and Helen was willing and able to travel the world with him as well. His relationship with Helen was a rounding-out of his romantic life, not a replacement of his earlier one, in my view.

Frederick Douglass' row houses at 2000–2008 17th Street, Washington

Frederick Douglass’ row houses at 2000–2004 17th Street, Washington, D.C.. He built the three to the left, from the blue one at the end to the left, now Hana Japanese Market, to the green one in the middle.

Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, public domain courtesy of the National Gallery of Art website

Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, public domain courtesy of the National Gallery of Art website

From here, I hurry to the last Douglass site of the trip, just a few blocks north of the Grimké house, on my way back to Baltimore. In 1875-1876, Douglass built three row houses at 2000–2004 17th Street NW, just north of U St. They’re the three southernmost houses in a five-house row. I don’t find any evidence that Douglass himself ever lived here since he and his family were living in the A Street house at that time. He did like to invest in real estate and his children would often live at the investment properties; these row houses present an example of this. Hana Japanese Market now occupies that was then number 2000 17th St; it’s now numbered 2004. His son Lewis lived in the one next to it, the yellow one, starting in 1877. This neighborhood was called Strivers’ Section for the successful African Americans who made their homes here. After all, for a black person to do well in D.C. and really anywhere in America, it took one hell of a lot of striving.

As you may remember from my earlier accounts, Lewis was a Civil War hero whose 54th regiment attacked Fort Wagner, the father of Joseph Douglass the great violinist, and direct ancestor of my honored podcast guest Ken Morris. He was an accomplished man in his own right, who had an honorable if short military career abbreviated by injury and ill health. He worked as a teacher and as a newspaperman who fought for black typesetters’ rights, worked closely with his father on The New National Era, and held many government posts. Lewis lived here at (then) 2002 17th St until he died in 1908.

This particular Douglass journey is now complete. But I’ll continue to follow his life and ideas throughout mine, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Douglass’ story is embedded deeply in my mind and heart as I’ve spent so many hours with him, peering through time and space in an effort to better understand and appreciate this fascinating, intelligent, and feeling man, with all his strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. I have lots of drafts and notes for more pieces about Douglass’ ideas on many topics, so I hope you’ll keep on the lookout for more about Douglass here at Ordinary Philosophy.

It seems that I should close the story of my journey following Frederick Douglass with an epic quote from the great man; there’s such a wealth to choose from! But I came across this visual treat that delighted me so much I’ve decided to close this account with it: a photo of Abraham Lincoln fist-bumping Martin Luther King Jr, as Douglass stands by, tall and dignified as ever amidst these shenanigans, next to Harriet Tubman. Well, actors portraying them, anyway. I wonder what the dignified Douglass would think of fist-bumping. Probably not much; it’s a little too casual a greeting for him, I think. But who knows? The fact that it was our first black President who made it a presidentially acceptable thing to do might have changed his mind.


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Frederick Douglass and friends portrayed by actors for Emancipation and the Dream of Freedom From Slavery to the White House 2009 by Michael A. Roth, National Park Service

Frederick Douglass Michael Crutcher), Abraham Lincoln (Fritz Klein), Martin Luther King Jr (Jim Lucas), and Harriet Tubman (Kathryn Harris) as portrayed in ‘Emancipation and the Dream of Freedom: From Slavery to the White House’, Lincoln Home bicentennial celebration event, 2009 by Michael A. Roth for the National Park Service. Photo used by permission.

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Sources and Inspiration:

About New National Era. (Washington, D.C.) 1870-1874‘. Library of Congress: Chronicling America

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plates 31, 14and 22. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website

Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914)‘, from The National Women’s History Museum website

Death Of Fred Douglass: Obituary‘, February 21, 1895, The New York Times from On This Day,

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Bondage and my Freedom, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Douglass, Helen, 1838-1903, ed. In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass. Philadelphia: J.C. Yorston & Co, 1897

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress‘, Library of Congress website

Journey to Greatness: Character Lessons from the Past‘, from Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois website page of the National Park Service.

Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: the First Hundred Years, 1867-1967. New York University Press, 1969

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Muller, John. ‘Arson attempt on the offices of Frederick Douglass’ The New Era? [Baltimore Sun, May 1871]’ , ‘Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]’, ‘Frederick Douglass, editor of The New National Era, explains newspaper’s name change [September 8, 1870]‘, and Howard Univeristy. Views of Fred. Douglass Upon the Proposed Changes in its Management [National Republican., June 24, 1875, p. 4.], In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Ott, Chris. ‘Grimké, Francis (1850–1937)‘ From

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1948.

Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass‘, National Gallery of Art website.

Strivers’ Section Historic District‘, from National Register of Historic Places hosted by the NPS

Turner, Cory. ‘Martin, John Sella (1832-1876)‘.

Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Thirteenth Day, Friday, April 1st, continued

I leave the approximate site of Helen Pitts-Douglass’ onetime home at 913 E St NE, and head southwest to 316-18 A Street NE.

In 1872, Douglass moved his family here to Washington, DC. Since his beloved farm home on the hill in Rochester had burned to the ground on June 2, 1872, probably by arson, Douglass was bitter and in the mood to shake the dust of that city from his feet. He had already been considering a permanent move to Washington since his work with the New National Era newspaper (more on that to come), his political work, and his efforts to obtain a good government appointment often took him there, sometimes for lengthy stays. In fact, he was in Washington when he received a telegram notifying him of the fire.

Frederick Douglass house at 316-320 A St, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass house at 316-318 A St and the museum dedicated to him next door, in Washington, D.C.

So Douglass brought his family here, and after a stay in rented rooms, the Douglass family moved into this pretty Queen Anne brick house, likely in late 1872. I haven’t yet found a more exact timeline for where the Douglasses lived and when during their first months in Washington: sources vary on this. The plaque I find here at the house, placed in 1966, says that Douglass lived here from 1871 to 1877, though many other sources say 1872 and 1878, respectively. Perhaps Douglass had purchased this already as a second or investment home in 1871. In any case, the Douglass family lived here for about six years until they moved across the Anacostia River to Cedar Hill in 1878, though Douglass retained ownership of this house. I find an entry in John Muller’s Lion of Anacostia blog showing that Douglass applied for a permit to build onto this property in 1879, and his son Charles was living here when he died in 1920.

The restored house and the adjacent building at 320 A St now make up The Frederick Douglass Museum and Caring Hall of Fame, which is available for tours by appointment.

AME Methodist Church at 1518 M St NW

The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW, Washington D.C.

Then I head northwest across town, a cross-wise route via Massachusetts Ave to the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW. This historic church has many associations with Douglass, but I’ll focus on three main ones. In 1889, the Bethel Literary Society held a surprise 71st birthday celebration for Douglass here. Actually, the party would have been held at the church hall next door, since that’s where the Society met, where the ugly office building now stands to the right of the church. He was called upon to speak, and speak he did, of course, that was his specialty. The speech was written down by hand then typed; it’s at the Library of Congress today.

Douglass delivered another speech here five years later on January 9th, 1894. It was one of his greatest, called ‘The Lessons of the Hour’. In it, he speaks out against the lynching which had become rampant in the South. As you may remember from my New York account, Douglass was inspired by Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism into the true nature and extent of lynching in the South, and had joined her in campaigning against it in 1892. Douglass blamed the accusations of rape used to excuse the lynchings as a new method of slandering black people and inciting white people to hate and fear them, since they could no longer use the excuse of a fear of slave uprising or black domination of white people through the vote. If it was true that black men were actually suddenly going around raping white women right and left, which mind you, hadn’t happened much in the South historically, why resort to mob violence instead of proving these cases in court? Because, Douglass charged, the lynchers and their apologists knew these accusations were lies. Metropolitan A.M.E. Church sign, Washington D.C. photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, 1900, via NPS website

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, circa 1900, public domain via the National Park Service website.

One year later, Douglass’ funeral service was held here, on Feb 25th 1895, the first of two; the second was held in Rochester, where he was buried. This funeral was attended by huge numbers of mourners and dignitaries, including Susan B. Anthony and Justice John Marshall Harlan, the great Kentucky-born Supreme Court justice who had reversed his views on slavery to become a champion of civil rights. (A factoid of personal interest: Justice Harlan’s family home was in Harrodsburg, a town founded by an ancestor on my mother’s side; she’s a Harrod.) Justice Harlon famously dissented in the Court’s decisions in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which set back the cause of black rights for over half a century. Douglass, who believed in the perfectibility of humankind, would have welcomed Harlan’s moral evolution warmly, just as he welcomed Lincoln’s.

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

United States President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, 20 January 2013, by Peter Souza, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t enter the church because there’s a man standing outside clearly discouraging drop-in guests, as they appear to be setting up for an event; I have the impression it’s a funeral. I curb my curiosity with some effort, out of respect, though I really, really want to see the inside of this great historic place. President Bill Clinton’s inaugural prayer service was also held here, and Barack and Michelle Obama attended a service here on the occasion of Obama’s inauguration in 2013 as well. What excitement for Douglass, if he were there that day! Well, I’ll make it inside next time I’m in D.C., I hope.

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen's Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen’s Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

Freedmen's Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

Freedmen’s Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

I find I need to move my car, so I head down the way a bit and find a good parking spot and walk south towards the Mall, to 1503-1505 Pennsylvania Ave NW. My destination is the U.S. Treasury Annex building, a marble edifice with classical columns off the pedestrian-only section of Pennsylvania Ave where it joins the southeast corner of Lafayette Square. It stands across from the north end of the main U.S. Department of the Treasury building to the left (west) of the PNC and Bank of America building.

I’m here because the Annex building stands on the site of the original headquarters of the Freedman’s Bank, and has recently been renamed the Freedman’s Bank Building to commemorate that institution’s 150th anniversary. Though the bank was headquartered here in 1867, the first branch had opened over a year earlier in Baltimore, Maryland, the site of which, as you may remember, I sought in Baltimore on my way back from the East Shore of Maryland. The 1874 newspaper article I referenced lists the Baltimore location as a branch office of the main one in Washington, though it still likely predates the main office.

Freedman's Savings Bank Building, Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Freedman’s Savings Bank Building in 1890 not long before it was razed, at about 1503 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC. In his Life and Times, Douglass wrote of this handsome, exquisitely appointed building devoted to the well-being of his people, ‘The whole thing was beautiful’.

In March 1874, Douglass was named President of the Freedman’s Bank. It was a private bank chartered by the U.S. government with Lincoln’s support, with Congressional oversight. It was supposed to help freed slaves and their families gain economic independence as well. The Bank opened to widespread popular support and for many years did just what it set out to do, and Douglass was a passionate fan of the project, depositing $12,000 of his own money. However, over time, poor management and corruption left it heavily in debt and on the verge of collapse. Douglass was asked to take over the Bank in hopes that his reputation would buttress the Bank’s own. But Douglass found he just couldn’t save it. Not only did he lack expertise as a banker, he learned only after he accepted how deeply the Bank was in trouble. Even a personal loan of $10,000 could do little to contribute to the Bank’s solvency. From this experience, as Douglass told it, he learned a great deal about how corrupt the political system had become as well as the unfortunate selfishness and greed of too many people.

Douglass also learned that he was not particularly adept as a businessman in many ways. He well understood the importance of economic independence for achieving full political and social equality, and succeeded financially due to his hard work, his prudent investments in safer ventures such as real estate, and his prodigious array of skills in other areas. As he admitted, however, he lost a lot of money when he helped found the New National Era paper and could not save the Freedmen’s Bank because, in both ventures, he failed to look into and secure their financial underpinnings himself before putting his own money in. In both cases, he simply took other people’s word for it, for how the venture was doing or likely to do, and his advisors were not disinterested parties. So the New National Era and the Bank failed as his North Star had nearly done before Julia Griffith’s tenure there, through poor financial handling. In business matters at least, Douglass’ idealism tended to win out over his more pragmatic approach in other areas.

The White House, Washington D.C.

The White House, Washington D.C., looking across the South Lawn and President’s Park fountain

Next, I head south on 15th St, and turn right on the pedestrian walkway that E St becomes as it passes between President’s Park and the South Lawn of the White House, and the Ellipse.

Late in July of 1863, Douglass visited the White House for the first time when he requested, and was granted, an audience to address President Abraham Lincoln directly. His mission was to obtain better treatment of black soldiers. When they were first admitted to the Union Army, black soldiers received less pay and less and poorer quality equipment than their white compatriots. This, though they faced greater danger at the hands of hostile Southerners, especially if they were captured.

Lincoln told Douglass, regretfully, that he could not yet guarantee equal treatment of black soldiers given the strength of Northern opposition to enlisting black soldiers at all. He agreed, however, that Douglass’ demands were just and he would do as much as he could as the opportunities presented themselves, including signing off on Secretary of War’s commissions for black soldiers. Though he had often considered Lincoln a ‘vascillator’, not a consistent or even principled champion of black rights, Douglass left this audience with an impression of Lincoln as ‘an honest man’ and, personally, ‘entire[ly] free… from prejudice against colored people’. On the basis of this meeting, Douglass decided to resume recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army, which he had stopped for awhile in protest over their treatment. However, over time, he still found himself often frustrated at the slow pace of reform in the President’s administration, and his old doubts about Lincoln stayed with him, enough for him to join in an effort of Radical Republicans to replace Lincoln in the next election. Douglass met Lincoln a second time about August 25, 1864; Lincoln had asked to meet Douglass again since he heard Douglass was unhappy with his policies. As I described in my Chambersburg account, Lincoln and Douglass concocted a plan for the latter to lead efforts to help slaves flee north behind Union lines, a plan very like John Brown’s original one before Harper’s Ferry. Douglass agreed to this plan but it never materialized.

Douglass returned again to the White House many times. On March 4th, 1865, he attended the reception held here following Lincoln’s second inauguration. When Douglass tried to enter, he was stopped by two policemen who tried to trick him into leaving. He stood his ground and got word in to Lincoln, who ordered that Douglass be allowed in. When Douglass entered, Lincoln strode across the room, shook his hand, and loudly greeted him as ‘my friend Douglass’.

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

On February 7th, 1866, Douglass arrived here again with a delegation, which included his son Lewis, to meet President Andrew Johnson. They discussed and debated Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson protested that his South-friendly, anti-black-suffrage policies were designed to prevent race wars, while Douglass argued that since his policies perpetuated the same old hatreds and bigotries, they would result merely in prolonging the conflicts. The year before, on the Capitol steps just before he delivered his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed Douglass out in the crowd to then Vice President Johnson. Douglass noticed that Johnson looked at him with ‘bitter contempt and aversion’ when he didn’t know Douglass was looking. But when Douglass caught Johnson’s eye, his faced smoothed into a friendlier expression. Douglass would go on to write that he knew then that Johnson was not a sincere friend of the cause for black rights.

Douglass returned to the White House more than once in the mid-to-late 1880’s at the invitation of Grover Cleveland. But likely not to dinner, as some had said, despite what alcoholic-turned-prohibitionist preacher Sam Small wrote. Small was also quite the racist, and used the rumor to try and discredit Cleveland, writing ‘[he] invited that leader of niggerdom, Fred Douglass, to his dinner table. I might excuse him…, but when he invited the low wife to go there, it is more than I can stand’. (What a creep!) Douglass himself wrote in his Life and Times that he and Helen were invited to many receptions by the Clevelands but didn’t mention a dinner with them. Douglass expressed approval of Cleveland as a person, though they were divided over politics, because Cleveland treated the Douglasses with courtesy and respect despite Douglass’ efforts against him in the presidential race. Perhaps Douglass was more disposed to friendliness because of his disillusionment with the Republicans and their abandonment of the black rights cause at this time, and as always, he was very proud that he was now a man that presidents rub shoulders with. But I don’t find evidence that Cleveland did much of anything to show he cared about black rights either. In later years, he even took to protesting to the House of Representatives that he had never done such a thing as invite a black person to dinner at the White House. Douglass’ flattering picture of Cleveland, sadly, appears to show a weakness. Always a proud man, Douglass let his personal pride overcome his convictions somewhat in this instance.

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsyvania NW, Washington DC

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsylvania NW, Washington DC

Metzerott Hall, 1873, 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via LOC, and the Hoover Bldg today

Metzerott Hall in 1873 at 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via Library of Congress (above), and the Hoover Building today (below)

I head southwest along Pennsylvania Ave to 925 NW, the former site of Metzerott Hall now occupied by the humongous and hideous J. Edgar Hoover Building. Once called Iron Hall, its facade collapsed in 1894, presumably due to the massive weight of its iron portions.

On February 20th, 1895, Douglass addressed a meeting of the National Council of Women here. This address was his last act of public service: at about 7 that evening at home, as he described the events of this meeting to Helen, he fell to his knees and died suddenly of heart failure. Douglass’ friend Mark Twain also spoke here, and as we can see from the postcard at the left, the Equal Rights Association met here too. As you may remember, Douglass was a member. On May 15th, 1871, Douglass was appointed to the brand new Legislative Council of the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia by Ulysses S. Grant, who both Twain and Douglass admired. However, Douglass only kept the post for a little over a month. He resigned on June 20th, citing pressing engagements elsewhere, but I suspect Douglass might have suspected this legislature was flawed. Exactly 3 years after his resignation, the Territorial Government was abruptly disbanded for financial irresponsibility. As you may remember, while Grant was personally honest as far as historians can tell, his administration was infamous for its corruption and waste.

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown, public domain via LOC

First inauguration of President Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown

I continue east on Pennsylvania Ave to the Capitol Building, and go around to its east facade off East Capitol St NE and First St SE.

On March 4th, 1861, Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on the steps of the not-quite-finished Capitol Building. Douglass did not attend but he read the Address and critiqued it sharply in Douglass’ Monthly, the successor to the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. He described the address as ‘double-tongued’ and ‘…but little better than our worst fears, and vastly below what we had fondly hoped it would be’. Douglass viewed Lincoln’s refusal to take a strong stance against slavery as a betrayal of principle. He accused Lincoln of being as cowed by the slaveowners as previous administrations had been, as Lincoln stated his intention not to interfere with slavery where it already existed and promised to uphold fugitive slave laws in the North. Over time, Douglass realized that Lincoln personally hated slavery and that this conciliatory stance was a pragmatic way of attaining the presidency so he could save the Union and reform it gradually. But Lincoln’s caution and reticence went too far even for the pragmatic Douglass, who had lost his faith that slavery could be ended without force.

Abraham Lincoln delivering 2nd inaugural address as President of the U.S., Washington, D.C., photo Public Domain via LOC

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.. This photo was made especially famous when historian Ronald C. White identified John Wilkes Booth among those standing on the platform above and to the right of Lincoln, to the right of the statue and just to the left of the tall man with the bowler hat

As we have already seen, however, Douglass did attend Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, held here on the steps of the then-finished Capitol Building on March 4, 1865. Douglass was far, far, better pleased with this one, to say the least. Lincoln, at last, had taken a firm stance against slavery, and the line ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ surely resonated with Douglass’s sense of justice. He was ambivalent about violence throughout his life, but had come to believe it was sometimes both justified and necessary. Later that day at the White House reception, Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of this Address, presumably because he knew Douglass had so thoroughly and publicly excoriated Lincoln’s first.

Douglass was here at the Capitol Building one last time on the morning of his death. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was dropped off at the Congressional Library (Library of Congress) which was located in this building until it was moved across the street to the beautiful new Jefferson Building two years later, in 1897. More on that in tomorrow’s account.

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

It’s a beautiful early evening when I end my Douglass explorations for the day here at the Capitol Building. I make my way to the Jefferson Memorial to watch the sun set over the Tidal Basin through the cherry blossoms now in full bloom. Tomorrow will be my last day in D.C., and my last day following Douglass on this tour. To be continued….

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Sources and Inspiration:

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plate 21. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website

Blight, David W. ‘Lincoln, Douglass and the ‘Double-Tongued Document’’. New York Times Opinionator blog, May 6, 2011.

Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Death Of Fred Douglass: Obituary‘, February 21, 1895, The New York Times from On This Day,

Douglass, Frederick. Address … January 9th, 1894, on the Lessons of the Hour. Press of Thomas and Evans, Baltimore, Maryland. From the Library of Congress website.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Speech at a Surprise Party on Douglass’ 71st Birthday. 1889‘. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress website

Douglass, Helen, 1838-1903, ed. In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass. Philadelphia: J.C. Yorston & Co, 1897

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Gayle, Margot and Carol Gayle. Cast-iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus. WW Norton & Co: New York, 1998.

Harris, Gardiner. ‘The Underside of the Welcome Mat‘, The New York Times, N0v. 8, 2008

Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress‘, Library of Congress website

King, Gilbert. ‘The Great Dissenter and his Half-Brother‘. Dec 20, 2011,

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Muller, John. ‘Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]’ In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. ‘Frederick Douglass’ “Application for Permit to Build” for 316 & 318 A Street NE’. In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1948.

Roberts, Kim. ‘The Bethel Literary and Historical Society‘. Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Literary Organizations Issue.

Roe, Garrett W. Frederick Douglass’ ‘Homecoming’: Funeral and Burial, visual presentation, May 23rd 2014

Stiller, Jesse. ‘The Freedman’s Savings Bank: Good Intentions Were Not Enough; A Noble Experiment Goes Awry‘. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, U.S. Treasury Department website

Treasury to Commemorate 150th Anniversary of Freedman’s Bank,’ 12/29/2015 press release of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Press Center

Veroske, Ariel. ‘The Feather Duster Affair of 1874‘, June 20th, 2013, from

The Washington Times. (Washington, D.C.), 18 Feb. 1895. From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.