This month we are commemorating Black History with a series of articles. The articles will feature prominent figures, and give rare insight into the chorus of voices that inspired the Civil Rights movement.
Today, we shine a spotlight on a man whose unabashed advocacy for the rights of African Americans was truly groundbreaking. Author John Muller goes beyond the book to render a fresh and intimate portrayal of Douglass in D.C.
What piqued your interest in the history of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia?
In middle school, I discovered Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, published in 1845, and was deeply touched and moved by the spirit of resiliency and determination told in its pages. Douglass’s first autobiography, written while he was just twenty-eight years old, stands the test of time as one of the most definitive nonfiction works of the nineteenth century. Last year, the Library of Congress recognized the book as one of the eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America.”
In high school, I hung a poster of an elder Douglass, with a penetrating gaze equally stoic and stern, on my wall. I read up on Douglass independently, learning about his 1855 and 1881 (updated in 1892) autobiographies. Growing up in Metropolitan Washington and its Maryland suburbs, there is an added awareness of Douglass, not just as a national symbolic figure but as a man of local consequence and import. Douglass was a product of this area, leaving footprints in the cities of Washington and Baltimore and throughout Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He is rightfully recognized and celebrated as a native son. In high school, I recorded C-SPAN’s American Writers series that was broadcast from Cedar Hill in Anacostia and rewatched it often.
Prior to joining the Washington Times in spring 2009, I had spent some time in Anacostia and had a working knowledge of the larger neighborhood. As a journalist, your job is to know the lay of the land. It was then that I first began to investigate the history of not just Anacostia but its most famous resident, Frederick Douglass.
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2010 when I began working for the United Planning Organization as a poverty worker in the 1600 block of Good Hope Road SE on the eastern edge of the Historic Anacostia neighborhood. Every morning and most afternoons, I would walk to my office from the Anacostia Metro station and in the process pass the home of Frederick Douglass, a National Park site perched atop a hill fifty-one feet above W Street SE. On the morning of June 7, 2010, I went about my regular routine, which was to get off the train, walk down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, turn right at W Street SE and then turn left at Sixteenth Street SE. What I saw that morning and the encouragement of a friend manifested itself in my first book. To find out what happened you have to read the book!
What kind of relationship did Douglass have with Abraham Lincoln?
Douglass was an informal adviser to Lincoln. They had two private meetings/interviews and met for a third and final time in Washington on the evening of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
From all reports we have, which are mainly Douglass’s, the self-made men shared a mutual respect for each other. After the assassination, Douglass did not invoke Lincoln’s name casually or in order to “wave the bloody shirt.” Douglass considered Lincoln a man first, a friend second and the President third.
However, Douglass, consistent with nearly every other Radical Republican, was initially suspect of Lincoln and his true feelings towards emancipation and the South–he was very critical of Lincoln. Over time and the waging of continued struggle, Douglass saw that Lincoln was leaning in the right direction.
In their first interview in the summer of 1863, Douglass acknowledged Lincoln’s efforts to arm black troops for the Union cause, but he demanded meritorious promotion, equal pay and retaliation returned on Confederate prisoners of war for the Confederacy’s massacre of black Union troops. Douglass did not hesitate reading Lincoln the riot act.
After the Civil War, Douglass maintained contact (through Elizabeth Keckley) with Mary Todd Lincoln, who sent Douglass one of her husband’s walking canes. Douglass had it until the day he died. In 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote address at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial at Lincoln Park.
How does Douglass in Washington D.C. fit into the broader historical picture of D.C.?
Reconstruction’s impact on post-emancipation Washington cannot be intelligently discussed without including Frederick Douglass. During this era, the first generation of black American civil rights leaders came to the nation’s capital to take their seats in the halls of Congress; in February 1870, Hiram Revels representing Mississippi was sworn in as the first black American to join the United States Senate, filling the seat vacated by the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis; in December 1870, Joseph Rainey from South Carolina became the first black American member of the House of Representatives. To study these men and their impact on Washington, you must study Frederick Douglass and his newspaper the New National Era.
From the growth of the city’s public colored school system to the influence of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church at 1518 M Street NW (where it stands today) to the first streetcar serving the Anacostia neighborhood, Frederick Douglass was active in every facet of local life, from advocating for District Suffrage to investing in real estate to mentoring a younger generation of leaders who would lead businesses and institutions that shaped Washington society for decades to come.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Anything by Matt Christopher (who wrote books about youth sports teams) and Shel Silverstein.
What was “New Washington?”
During the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Washington, D.C., began to resemble a city worthy of its capital status. Under the leadership of the national and local Republican Party, city laws were liberalized, enfranchising blacks and outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, and an aggressive public works campaign created an infrastructure where there had been none. Washington began to mature into an urban metropolis where opportunity was seemingly everywhere. Similar to the Washington, D.C., of 2013, with the dawn of the 1870s, the nation’s capital was the place to be.
Discuss the implications of Frederick Douglass marrying a white woman, Helen Pitts?
After forty-four years of marriage and giving her husband to the cause, Anna Murray Douglass, who was born free and raised five children (four lived to adulthood), died in August of 1882. Her efforts enabled Frederick Douglass to flee Baltimore in September 1838 for New York City, where they married in September 1838. When Anna died, her husband was crestfallen. Douglass confided to a friend that if it were not for his children and grandchildren, he would venture to Europe and spend the rest of days wandering. Instead he grieved for eighteen months, leaving Washington during the spring and summer of 1883.
On January 24, 1884, Douglass, nearly seventy years old, upturned Washington society by marrying Helen Pitts, a white woman. Forty-six years old and college-educated, Helen was the daughter of a New York abolitionist who had welcomed Douglass into his home when Helen was a child, and in the immediacy after Anna’s death. She was the niece of Douglass’s next-door neighbor and worked with Douglass’s eldest daughter, Rosetta, in the Recorder of Deeds office.
The announcement divided the black press and their respective families. In some states, the marriage would have been grounds for arrest. Over their eleven years together, they hosted literary salons at Cedar Hill, sat in the Senate gallery, traveled through Europe and Egypt and lived in Haiti. After Frederick’s death in February of 1895, Helen worked to maintain the home and grounds as a memorial. She died in December 1903 at the age of sixty-five.
Who are your top five authors?
Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Edward P. Jones, George Alfred Townsend, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass (of course!)
When comparing Douglass’s time as a marshal, editor and philanthropist, does one role seem to stand out? If so, why?
His appointment as Washington’s United States marshal in March of 1877 by President Rutherford B. Hayes, after being an outlaw from the law in the 1830s and 1840s and evading marshals in the wake of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, is proof positive of the old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. For that reason alone, Douglass’s time as marshal stands out to me. However, Douglass admittedly did not enjoy spending hours upon hours in court and among the city’s hardened criminal class. It was a lucrative appointment, and Douglass proved he was more than capable.
Without a doubt the most important and lasting contribution Douglass made to Washington, D.C., was his service to Howard University and its Board of Trustees for more than twenty years. Douglass worked for more than twenty-five years towards the abolition of slavery. When that mission was complete, Douglass rededicated himself to the education of four million freedmen and their children and daughters. His support of the university during its early years laid the foundation for its success and current status as an elite HBCU and the “Mecca,” as it is known, in contemporary Washington.
Any books you’ve faked reading?
Harry Potter books
Which chapter was your favorite to research/write and why?
“Grandpa Douglass” because it presents a brief look into the humanity of the private family man, not the public lecturer, journalist, political party man, statesman and reformer. We hear vivid stories of Douglass getting on all fours and acting as a play-horse for his grandchildren, who pulled on his long mane of hair as though it were reins. Readers get an introduction to the connection Frederick Douglass had with his grandson, Joseph Douglass, through their shared musicianship.
On the Wye House plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a young Frederick Bailey (later Douglass) was introduced to the violin. While in his twenties and in Dublin speaking out against American slavery and for Irish Independence, Douglass bought his first violin. The merchant was taken aback at the American’s mastery of the Irish folksong “Rocky Road to Dublin.” Frederick Douglass would play violin for the rest of his life and pass his love of the instrument on to his youngest son, Charles, who in turn passed it on to his son, Joseph, a quick study. Frederick financed Joseph’s classical musical training but died before he could join his grandson at one of his many performances at the White House.
Was there a book that changed your life?
Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
Why was Douglass’s nickname the “Lion of Anacostia?”
Throughout his life, Frederick Douglass carried many titles, such as Honorable Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, Esquire. At a young age, he became a licensed local preacher, and throughout his life, many felt compelled to address him as Reverend Douglass. He was all of these distinctions in official Washington, but in his neighborhood, the city’s first subdivision, Douglass was known as “Old Man Eloquent,” “The Sage of Anacostia,” “The Sage of Cedar Hill” and “The Lion of Anacostia.”
His leonine head of hair appeared in every image and print that ever captured Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of the nineteenth century. Over the years, his hair and beard turned snowy white. As United States marshal of the country’s capital city, he walked the neighborhood streets from his Victorian mansion at Cedar Hill across the Navy Yard bridge over the Anacostia River and then down Pennsylvania Avenue to his office at City Hall. He continued this practice for many years. “Frederick Douglass, in spite of his age, walks about Washington as briskly as a boy,” observed the New York Tribune in early 1884.
A half-century before, Douglass was a young lion, an adolescent slave roaming the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, hunting for scattered newspapers and torn Bible pages, scanning broadsides and generally searching for anything with reading matter. As a young lion and fugitive slave, Douglass rose to become a self-elevated king of antebellum America’s antislavery jungle.
Two men tender introductions to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography. Journalist William Lloyd Garrison leads with a Preface and abolitionist Wendell Phillips follows with a letter.
From Boston in April 1845, Phillips begins, “You remember the old fable of ‘The Man and the Lion,’ where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented ‘when the lions wrote history.’”
I am glad the time has come when the “lions write history.”
Douglass was a king in his household, his neighborhood and the city in which he died on February 20, 1895. He was and remains “The Lion of Anacostia.”
What is your favorite title on your bookshelf/nightstand?
The King James Bible
Was there anything in your research that surprised you?
Like Dr. King and Rosa Parks, the real-life man, myth and legend of Frederick Douglass has become distant in its sweeping and redemptive symbolism. Nearly all of what we publicly know about Douglass is what he told in his own writings. There have been solid scholarly works that look at certain aspects of Douglass, but in many instances, these works are monographs and haven’t helped sustain a lasting discussion on Douglass. Who he was, especially his later years in Washington, has been obscured. Knowing Douglass to be a man for all seasons, I am still surprised to discover how much he meant to the city of Washington.
With that said, everything I discovered was a new revelation in and unto itself. Only the most serious of Douglass scholars, of which there are far too few, know how various his styles were from advocating women’s rights to the cause of temperance.
What ways are you helping commemorate Black History Month?
I have a number of speaking engagements where I hope to continue to share and build interest in the true story of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.
Any future projects on the horizon?
I am working on Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent, which will be out this fall, and I am continuing to cover current affairs and local politics in Washington.
What are you reading right now?
A couple of books simultaneously related to Mark Twain’s time in Washington, including Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Harvard University Press) by Donald E. Ritchie, The Press Gang: Newspaper and Politics, 1865–1878 (University of North Carolina Press) by Mark Wahlgren Summers, Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West (Alfred A. Knopf) by David Dary and The Confidence Game in American Literature (Princeton University Press) by Wawrick Wadlington.
I’m also reviewing the writings of George Alfred Townsend and the Washington-related canon of Mark Twain’s work, most notably The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.
A side project is creating an anthology of every nineteenth-century book that includes some mention, anecdote or contribution from Frederick Douglass.
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.