Monday, February 20, 2017

Addy's Field Trip: Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass!

Looking pretty good for a 199 year old man!

Well, I'm part of the way through semester two, Jessi has gone home (we got engaged!!) and the weather has been crazy nice here for the last few days. That means I've been on the look out for fun new places to visit and things to do, and thanks to my friend Ama, I've got a little field trip post for you guys!

February 20th might be President's Day this year, but it was also the birthday of one of the most important figures in the Abolitionist and early Civil Rights movements: Frederick Douglass! To celebrate, the Frederick Douglass House held a variety of events at the house itself and the Anacostia Art Center to tell people about Douglass's life and the world he lived in. My friend Ama heard about the events, and invited our friend Jenna, Addy and I to come along with her. Read on to find out more!

The Frederick Douglass House is a historic site managed by the National Parks Service. Douglass and his family lived at the house for the last 17 years of his life. Upon his death, his second wife immediately began work to preserve it as a historic home so that future generations could come and learn about the man who championed for equal rights. Because of this, most of the furniture in the home is still original to the Douglass family, which is pretty cool! That's not something every historic site can claim.

The visitor center is tiny and a little well worn, but it has a classroom or lecture space, a gift shop, and a small exhibit about Douglass's life, including a death mask and a life size statue of the man himself.

Because it's managed by NPS, there's a Junior Ranger program and a stamp for your NPS Passport. My brother used to be very into doing Junior Ranger programs, but Addy just made a stamp with some help from Ama.

The visitor center is underground beneath the house itself, which can be reached by a stair case. Guided tours are given every day, but can fill up quickly, so it's a good idea to reserve a ticket if you have a tendency to run late.

It was a lot of fun visiting with Ama, as she picked this site as the focus of one of our papers last semester and could basically give the tour sans ranger. I love visiting places with people who love the history, especially when it's a topic I'm not very well versed on myself! And I love playing tour guide when given the chance, so it's fun to have your friends do that too.

Douglass called the house Cedar Hill while he was alive. Not only is his house an absolutely gorgeous building, but it's also across the river from downtown Washington, so Douglass had an amazing view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, not to mention the Navy Yard. The ranger who led our tour said that sometimes Douglass would walk to work at the Capitol, which is about eight miles both ways!

There was a really impressive turn out for house tours, which was good as a historian and fan of NPS, and bad in that we had to stand outside for about an hour and a half before we went into the house. The weather was super nice out, so we really didn't mind, but if it had been cold or raining, this would have been a huge bummer.

Part of the reason the tours were taking longer was because as part of the event, they had costumed interpreters portraying Douglass's first wife, son and colleagues who explained their connection to Douglass and his importance in their lives. We also got to meet Douglass himself, which was pretty cool!

Some of the interpreters were not the best performers I've ever seen, and Douglass's wig and beard were a little silly looking, but I love when sites offer this kind of experience. It definitely helps the place feel more real to visitors, and I hope this is a program they bring back more often.

The house itself is gorgeous. Although Douglass was born a slave and lived fairly humbly in the first years after he escaped to freedom, his work as a writer, politician, orator and activist elevated his family to an extremely comfortable lifestyle. The furniture, china and decor was really gorgeous, and I wished we had more time to talk about the history of the house itself, even though I did enjoy the special programming. I guess it's just a reason to go back soon!

Predictably, my favorite spot was the kitchen.

Because there were no interpreters in here, we got more of the traditional house tour. The ranger explained that Cedar Hill was one of the first homes in DC to have a kitchen inside the main building, rather than a separate building off from the house. Douglass also had a new style of stove that was supposed to catch fire less easily. Ironically, the untested nature of this new stove meant it was harder for Douglass to get his home insured against fire. This meant that if his house caught on fire, the fire department wouldn't help put it out even if they came by to see what was going on! Eventually, it was all worked out and Douglass did get fire insurance, although thankfully he never had to use it.

The pantry was well stocked with canned good, as well as fine wines, which Douglass didn't drink. He preferred cocoa, and had an ice cream freezer handy for his grandkids. Addy was excited to see he had a ice cream machine just like hers!

But this wasn't the only food related treat we got to enjoy! At the Anacostia Arts Center, which is a couple blocks away from Cedar Hill but a very doable walk, Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson from the University of Maryland-College Park gave a talk featuring original research done by herself and archaeologists to reconstruct what food Frederick Douglass ate, and how we can use that information to learn about his life.

Dr. Williams-Forson explained that we can learn a lot about enslaved foodways from archaeology at sites like the Wye House plantation, one of the places featured prominently in Douglass's autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass talks extensively about the brutal conditions at the Wye House, including how slaves worked to supplement their meager diets by any means necessary, including risking bodily harm for taking fruit from the garden.

After escaping and settling in New York, Douglass and his wife would have begun to purchase, cook and serve food that was typical of their middle and then upper class lifestyle. Menus and receipts that have survived show that the Douglass family enjoyed things like oysters, delicate cakes and fine spirits. She argued that we as historians and the general public need to expand our concept of traditional African American cuisine beyond soul food and the popular narrative of making something from nothing. While that is still certainly a part of Black culture and foodways, it is by no means the be all and end all, as evidenced by the menus and receipts from Douglass's personal papers.

It was a really interesting lecture, and I'm glad we were able to get to the Arts Center in time to see it. Using archaeology to confirm or disprove what our written sources say about eating habits has always fascinated me, and I've never been to the Wye House to see what they have to say about it, so it was great to have that information brought to us!

Overall, it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday. The house is beautiful, our park ranger was super energetic and had a lot of great information to share with us, the costumed interpreters were fun to see, the lecture was great, and the weather was perfect. I would definitely recommend checking out Cedar Hill on your next visit to DC. It's about a 15 minute walk or a short car ride away from the Anacostia metro stop, which is on the Green Line. The Anacostia Community Museum is also nearby, so once you're done at the house, you can head over there for more history!

Next year is Frederick Douglass's 200th birthday, and there are plans to make this a pretty awesome bicentennial. If you're going to come visit, it sounds like next year might definitely be the time to do it. I know I'll keep that weekend open!

Maybe we'll be seeing you guys there next year!


  1. "...the general public need to expand our concept of traditional African American cuisine beyond soul food..."

    I'm still peeved at one blog that stated all black people eat the same kind of cuisine. Yes, a lot of us including me have southern roots. We are also not a monolith, and it does no one any favors to overlook other foodways like my aunt's Gullah dishes, my friends' West Indies cuisines or Black Indian food that my brother makes sometimes.

    On the topic of Frederick Douglass, I highly recommend the Epic Rap Battle he stars in.

    1. It's pretty great! And very much agreed re: Black people are not a monolith. It's honestly something that puzzles me a lot because like, well obviously people have different recipes depending on family tradition/ethnicity/what's available/where they live. Gotta love that erasure, right. :\

  2. Very interesting! I will have to put this on my list for the next time I'm in DC.

    1. Definitely do! It was a really nice day trip. :)

  3. Sounds like I need to add this to next year's calendar!

    1. Absolutely! I'm really interested to see what they do for the Bicentennial!

  4. Loved this and thanks for giving me a new place to visit (as usual). Congrats on your engagement!

    1. Thank you!! And happy to help, I'm glad I still have time for field trip posts if nothing else. :D