Celebrating Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass and his wife, Helen Pitts Douglass (seated), with her sister, Eva, standing.

Frederick Douglass and his wife, Helen Pitts Douglass (seated), with her sister, Eva, standing.

The weekend of February 17 & 18, 2018, was dedicated to celebrating the birthday of freed slave, abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. His home Cedar Hill is preserved by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site in Washington, DC. It was the kick-off for a yearlong bicentennial commemoration of the birth of Frederick Douglass, considered one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.

A bicentennial creates excitement to get to know someone deeper – to learn not only their life but their legacy. This event provides an opportunity to re-engage and re-examine Frederick Douglass as a key American figure.

The preservation of Frederick Douglass’ home in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington DC has a notable history in its own right. Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, led the first effort to save Cedar Hill. His first wife (Anna Murray-Douglass) was a freed slave. She died in 1882. In 1884 Douglass married Helen Pitts, his secretary and a white woman. This caused an uproar in both the black and white communities. Douglass answered, “My first wife was the color of my mother. My second wife is the color of my father!”

Helen Pitts Douglass founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial Historical Association, which cared for the estate after his death in 1895 and ran it as a museum. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs strongly supported the museum and conducted fundraising campaigns for its maintenance. Donations came from school children donating pennies to one of the first female millionaires, Madame C.J. Walker.

These organizations established the Douglass house as a pilgrimage site – a shrine for the American people, and because of them the site became a part of the National Park Service in 1962, with a bill signed by President John F. Kennedy.

During the course of 2018, a series of events will be hosted honoring Frederick Douglass and his continued legacy. Engaging youth and fostering an appreciation of American History is part of the National Park Service mission and especially this year partnering with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives to launch new educational programs for school children visiting the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

This partnership with the Initiatives, for which Kenneth Morris, a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, serves as President, the educational initiative will provide new lesson plans on the life of Douglass for teachers, funding for bus transportation to the historic site, special National Park Ranger-led activities, and a free copy of the special bicentennial edition of Douglass’ landmark book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for every participating student.

On July 4th there will be a dramatic rendition at Cedar Hill of Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July” (originally given July 5, 1852) and the public is invited to remain and watch the fireworks display on the National Mall as the bicentennial commemoration continues throughout the year.

More information is available at go.nps.gov/Douglass200.

Some of the Events of February 17, 2018:

From 10:30 am until 12:30 pm there was an Opening Ceremony at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site Tent (Visitor Center Parking Lot):

• Welcome: Tara Morrison, Superintendent of Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at National Capital Parks-East

• Presentation of Colors: U.S. Park Police Honor Guard

• Washington Revels Jubilee Voices sang historic African American spirituals

• Remarks By Aurelia Skipwith (Dept. of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

• The Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton (U.S. House of Representatives Congresswoman for the District of Columbia)

• Robert G. Stanton (Former Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East; Former Director of the National Park Service; Member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation)

• Juanita Ferguson (President, Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Assoc.)

• Sharon Bridgeforth (President, National Assoc. of Colored Women’s Clubs)

• “The Transformative Power of Language”

Frederick Douglass Oratorical Contest Winners

These individuals excelled at memorizing and presenting Douglass speeches.

• Chase McClure, “I Speak to You as an American Citizen”

• Aneesh Mandapati, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions”

• Silas Montgomery, “I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Tremendous Fraud”

• Keynote speaker: Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., Third Great-Grandson of Frederick Douglass & Booker T. Washington and Co-Founder and President of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives


One of the most important friendships that developed during the Civil War was the one between President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Immediately after the Civil War began in April 1861, Douglass began to call for the use of black troops to fight the Confederacy. He argued for the establishment of colored regiments in the Union army. President Lincoln’s first concern was preserving the Union, however, so Douglass’ call at that time was not heeded.

Lincoln believed the primary directive of the North was to preserve the Union and not to end slavery. He proclaimed: “If I could save the Union, without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because I believe it would help to save the Union.”


In spite of the seeming pro-slavery policy of the Lincoln administration, Douglass was earnestly working to support the President. He was wise enough to understand that if Lincoln, at the start of the Conflict, had stated his policy to be, not only to save the Union, but also to free the slaves, all would have been lost.

In his speeches Douglass always emphasized “the mission of the war was the liberation of the slaves as well as the salvation of the Union. … I reproached the North that they fought with one hand, while they might fight more effectively with two; that they fought with the soft white hand, while they kept the black iron hand chained and helpless behind them; that they fought the effect, while they protected the cause; and that the Union cause would never prosper until the war assumed an anti-slavery attitude and the Negro was enlisted on the side of the Union.”

Douglass saw the Civil War as a struggle between freedom and slavery. For him, the sin of slavery could only be ended if Americans were forced to shed their blood. John Brown would be vindicated and blacks could take their place as citizens and equals. It was not until January 1863, following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, that Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts was given permission to raise the 54th Regiment of Colored Troops (featured in the movie ‘Glory’). Douglass became a recruiter, personally enlisting two companies of men, including two of his own sons, Charles and Lewis.

It was decided not to give the black soldiers the same pay as that allowed to the white troops. Negro soldiers were to receive only $7.00 per month. Regular pay was $13.00 a month. Douglass was distressed by the restrictions put upon these soldiers, but said, “While I, of course, was deeply pained and saddened by the estimate thus put upon my race, and grieved at the slowness of heart which marked the conduct of the loyal government, I was not discouraged and urged every man who would enlist to get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, and the star and spangle over his head.” Only through black participation in the war, he believed, could abolition and full citizenship for Negroes be established.


In July 1863, Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House to redress the grievances that the black troops were suffering as second-class citizens. It was unheard of for a colored man to go to the White House with a grievance. But he had many influential friends and admirers in Washington, and Senators Sumner, Wilson, and Pomeroy; Secretary of the Treasury Chase, Assistant Secretary of War Dana all guaranteed safe passage into Lincoln’s presence. Senator Pomeroy introduced Douglass to the President and they soon found that they had much in common. The one had traveled a long hard path from the slave cabin of Maryland, and the other a thorny road from the scant and rugged life of Kentucky, to the high position of President.

Douglass stated three complaints to the President: that colored troops be paid the same as white troops; that they be fairly treated, especially when captured by the Confederates (some colored troops had been summarily executed or sent into slavery); and that colored troops should receive the same promotions as whites, when their valor in battle demanded it. A few days later, President Lincoln issued an order “that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labour on the public works.”

This was the first of Douglass’ visits to the White House. At one such meeting, he relates, “While in conversation with him [Lincoln], his secretary twice announced Governor [Wm.] Buckingham of Connecticut, one of the noblest and most patriotic of the loyal governors. Mr. Lincoln said: ‘Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend, Frederick Douglass.’ I interposed and begged him to see the governor at once, as I could wait, but no, he persisted that he wanted to talk with me and that Governor Buckingham could wait. … In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular colour.”

Before the end of the war, many black soldiers were receiving equal pay and promotions. During the last two years of the war about 200,000 African Americans served in Union regiments. When given the chance to fight, blacks proved as brave as anyone. More than 30,000 died fighting for freedom and the Union.


Douglass was in Boston when Richmond fell. He was the honored speaker at many meetings. He had reason to feel not only joy but also gratitude. It was clear that all he had hoped and struggled for was soon to be realized. The close of the war and the overthrow of the institution of slavery was for him a sort of personal victory. But his rejoicing was soon turned to mourning. At the time of the assassination of President Lincoln he was in Rochester, and he spoke at a meeting held to express the sorrow that that event created. A friend related the occasion:

“Rochester court-house never held a larger crowd than was gathered to mourn over the martyred President. The most eloquent men at the Bar and the pulpit, with carefully prepared and earnestly uttered addresses, opened the meeting. All the time the people were not aroused. Douglass, who told me that he would not speak because he was not invited, sat crowded in the rear. At last the feeling could be restrained no more; and his name burst upon the air from every side and filled the house. The dignified gentlemen who directed had to surrender. Then came the finest appeal in behalf of the father of his people, who had died for them especially, and would be mourned by them as long as one remained in America who had been a slave. I have heard Webster and Clay in their best moments; Channing and Beecher in their highest inspirations. I never heard truer eloquence; I never saw profounder impression. When he finished the meeting was done.”

In her grief, and with the assistance of her black personal aide, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln sent mementos to special people. Among the recipients of some of the President’s canes were the black abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnet, and a White House servant, William Slade. But to Douglass Mrs. Lincoln sent the President’s ‘favorite walking staff’ (on display today at Cedar Hill). In his remarkable letter of reply, Douglass assured the First Lady that he would forever possess the cane as an “object of sacred interest,” not only for himself, but also because of Mr. Lincoln’s “humane interest in the welfare of my whole race.” In this expression of gratitude, Douglass evoked the enduring symbolic bond between the sixteenth President and many African Americans.

-By William S. Connery