Frederick Douglass’s historic house at Cedar Hill
The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) undertook crucial preservation work at the Frederick Douglass home (“Cedar Hill”) along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington DC, where the great abolitionist writer and former slave lived and worked from 1878 to his death in 1895. The restoration work was focused on Douglass’ papers, library and artifacts, and on improvements to the extensive grounds of the estate.
An article published in the The Atlanta Constitution in 1939 reported that the WPA Historical Records Survey Project was “cleaning assembling, indexing and filing the valuable papers” of the late Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) at his historic home, “Cedar Hill,” in the Washington, DC community of Anacostia. The WPA workers were also tasked with cataloging Douglass’s valuable book collection, and preparing artifacts for public display. (Thomas 1939)
The same article noted that in addition to the preservation work inside the home, “50 National Youth Administration students of the Phelps vocational school are applying their training as they beautify the 15-acre grounds surrounding the home. Carpentry, cement work, botany, landscape gardening and road work all come into play as the NYA students ply their skills and trades, and make the home of the great abolitionist a fitting historic shrine.” (Thomas 1939)
After Douglass’s death, his widow, Helen Pitts Douglass, founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in 1900, which was joined by the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1916. These groups owned the house until 1962, when the federal government was granted the deed to the house for the purpose of preserving it.
The efforts of the New Deal relief workers at Cedar Hill is an important part of its overall preservation history, as the New York Age newspaper highlighted at the time: “The projects of the WPA and NYA at the shrine fulfill a dream and end a long struggle to maintain the Home as a fitting memorial, a showplace for sightseers and a source of historical research and study for historians and students.” (New York Age, 1939)
Today, Cedar Hill is maintained by the National Park Service, after being named a National Historic Site in 1988. Visitors can walk the grounds of the estate, go on guided tours inside the house, and enjoy history, artifacts, a movie, and a bookstore inside the Visitor’s Center.
Jesse O. Thomas, “Urban League,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 12, 1939, p. 4K, (citing a WPA press release).
“Frederick Douglass Memorial Home,” The New York Age (New York, New York), April 1, 1939, p. 5.
“Frederick Douglass National Historic Site,” National Park Service, accessed May 10, 2019.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on March 24, 2015.
Additional contributions by Shaina Potts, Gray Brechin.
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