By his death on February 20, 1895, Washingtonian Frederick Douglass had become the most prominent black American in the United States and the entire world. Eulogists at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, just blocks from the White House, said his life’s work would be remembered along with those of the greatest men who had ever walked the earth. Dr. Jeremiah E. Rankin, president of Howard University, said, “There is but one parallel to the life of Frederick Douglass and this is found in the Bible; the Bible, which surpasses all other literature.”
In recent weeks Douglass’s name has been in the news. Last week, President Obama signed House Resolution 6636, which directs “the Joint Committee on the Library to accept a statue depicting Frederick Douglass from the District of Columbia and to provide for the permanent display of the statue in Emancipation Hall of the United States Capitol.”
With this renewed attention on Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C., it is rather fortuitous that for the first time, the last twenty-five years of Douglass’s life, including eighteen of those spent at Cedar Hill in Anacostia (a flagship site of the National Park Service), are explored in journalist John Muller’s new book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia.
Read historian John DeFerrari’s review of the book here.
During Douglass’s year in Washington, he was active in local politics, edited and published a groundbreaking newspaper, served on the Howard University Board of Trustees, remarried after the death of his first wife and was a committed family man and friend.
In March 1877, Douglass was appointed marshal of the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes. His confirmation was controversial and unprecedented. Throughout his four years as the arm of the law, Douglass proved to be capable, competent and above reproach.
Below is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia that details Douglass’s forgotten tenure as United States marshal of the District of Columbia. There would not be another black American marshal of the District until President Kennedy appointed Luke C. Moore.
An ex-constable was in the criminal court at Washington on business the other day, and was asked by one of the bailiffs if he was looking for Marshal Douglass. “No sir,” was the reply, “not now; but there was a time, when he was a fugitive slave, when I tried hard to find him.”
—New York Evangelist, April 19, 1877
In his lifetime, Frederick Douglass was the American Myth incarnate—once a full-flight fugitive slave and later appointed United States marshal of the nation’s capital city by the president. Raising himself up from humble origins, it was just over three decades prior to his appointment as an officer of the law that Douglass was the world’s most famous bondsman.
Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, stands the test of time. At the time of its release, Douglass was an outlaw flaunting the freedom he enjoyed in the North. He put the fury and wrath of the life experiences he had survived in writing in order to: 1) speak out against human bondage beyond the lecture circuit and 2) prove to his detractors that he was what he said he was—a self-educated runaway slave.
“Douglass was an outlaw flaunting the freedom he enjoyed in the North.”
Traveling and orating on both coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, his clarion voice boomeranged throughout American and British reformist communities. Douglass’s first autobiography identified people and places, making his capture imperative for the antebellum South in the face of the Northern freedom he aggrandized. Before anyone could capture the fleet Douglass, his freedom was purchased while he traveled throughout the British Empire.
Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was no less of a risk taker; his Rochester home, just as in Lynn and New Bedford, was a safe house for runaway slaves grasping for the safety of Canada. Along with his wife, Anna, Douglass was a 24/7/365 conductor on the Underground Railroad—the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and the United States marshals tasked with enforcing that statute be damned.
“I had as many as eleven fugitives under my roof at one time.”
“The route for slavery to freedom, for most of the fugitives, was through Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and thence to Canada,” Douglass wrote to William Seibert in 1893. From Syracuse, runaways were sent “then to Frederick Douglass, Rochester and then to Hiram Wilson, St. Catherine’s, Canada West.” Often, Douglass would arrive in the early morning to his newspaper offices to find fugitives awaiting him. He recalled, “I had as many as eleven fugitives under my roof at one time.”
As marshal of the District of Columbia, Douglass had the responsibility of bringing fugitives to justice, a long way from his days of quartering them. Douglass was in close contact with Washington’s criminal class nearly every day as marshal. He said as much, telling readers in his last autobiography that the marshal’s office “made me the daily witness in the criminal court of a side of the District life to me most painful and repulsive.”
“[T]he police of this city deserve great praise for efficiency and vigilance,” when “considering the vast territory to be guarded and the smallness of the corps,” was how a popular 1887 guidebook to Washington described the Police Court and Police Headquarters. Each morning and often on holidays, the Police Court opened “to try parties arrested during the previous day and night.”
“The scenes here witnessed are frequently worthy of the pen of a Dickens and the pencil of a Hogarth.”
Often times “the scenes here witnessed are frequently worthy of the pen of a Dickens and the pencil of a Hogarth.” The colorful guide continues that it “must be known that Washington City is the Mecca of the tramp, as well as the professional ‘crook,’ and the curious medley of figures, colors, and sex cannot probably be seen in any other city as is displayed at the nation’s capitol.”
However repulsed, it is clear Douglass did not waver in his commitment to executing the responsibilities of his office. Early biographer Fredric May Holland wrote, “One of his deputies, Colonel Perry H. Carson,” a leading figure of Washington’s black political class, “tells me that he worked like a tiger, and was on the spot early and late. He kept the office long enough to be present at Garfield’s inauguration; but not long enough to have Guiteau in custody; and he did not take part in putting anyone to death.”
According to historian David Turk, United States marshals are the oldest federal law enforcement agents in the nation, the first thirteen marshal appointments stemming from the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789. “Although U.S. marshals were no longer required to coordinate the federal census, as they had until 1870, there were the special responsibilities of law and order in a federal city,” Turk said in a 2005 lecture.
These duties included posting bankruptcy notices and “official documentation of prisoners to be transferred to and from prison to be brought before the Judiciary. It was required to name each person and transfer the document to the Warden” of the D.C. jail. Additionally, Marshal Douglass and his office were responsible to the “federal court” with “service process, issuing legal notices, judicial protection, and the supervision of federal prisoners within the District.”
Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia is now available at local stores and online at www.historypress.net.
John Muller is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, historian, playwright and policy analyst. A former reporter for the Washington Times, he is a current contributor to Capital Community News, Greater Greater Washington and other Washington, D.C. area media. His writing and reporting have appeared in Washington History, the Washington Post, the Georgetowner, East of the River, the Washington Informer, Suspense Magazine and Next American City (online). He has written extensively about municipal and neighborhood politics, public policy and current affairs in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area for the past three years.
In 2004, Muller co-founded a theater company, DreamCity Theatre Group, which was a finalist for three 2007 Mayor’s Arts Awards, including Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education. Muller is a 2007 graduate of George Washington University, with a BA in public policy, and a 1995 graduate of Greenwood Elementary School in Brookeville, Maryland. Read more at Muller’s blog, The Lion of Anacostia, and enjoy DCist.com’s feature on his new book here.