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Home of Slave Turned Civil Rights Leader Draws Crowds

Tourists visit the house that belonged to Frederick Douglass, a renowned orator and leading abolitionist

The home of Frederick Douglass, Cedar Hill, is drawing tourists in Washington, D.C.
The home of Frederick Douglass, Cedar Hill, is drawing tourists in Washington, D.C.

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Chris Simkins

In the United States, February is Black History Month, a time when observances pay tribute to people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. Communities across the country have promoted historic sites that serve as tributes to the past. One of those places is in in Washington, D.C., where people are learning about the African-American leader Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in 1818, but escaped to become a leading abolitionist.

Tourists come to it in search of a slice of African-American history. A tour guide takes them through.

"Now the irons that you see up here are the various irons the Douglass family used," says the guide. "This iron is really interesting. This is an iron for putting ruffles in a woman's dress. So it demonstrates the type of people who were living in the house."

The home, Cedar Hill,  belonged Douglass after slavery was abolished in 1865.  National Park Service Ranger Kamal McClarin says visitors come away inspired.  "That transition from slavery to freedom and living in a home like this really provides the public with tremendous inspiration and demonstrating those notions of self determination, you can rise from nothing to something."

Douglass purchased Cedar Hill in a "whites only" neighborhood. He lived there with his family from 1877 to his death in 1895.

More than 60,000 people have visited the home since it was restored in 2006. Thomas Fenske, a historian who came with friends, is one of them. He says tourists stopped coming in the 1970s because the house had fallen into disrepair. He's glad it's been renovated and is now a national historic site.

"Frederick Douglass was very very important as a founder of the civil rights movement," says Fenske. "He talked with President Lincoln and advised Lincoln on various things and of course was one of our country's great writers. So I think its important to have a house like this to keep his memory alive."

Today, vistors see how he lived and learn about his journey from a dedicated opponent of  slavery in the early 19th century America, to an advocate of women's rights, to one of the most respected African-American orators of the 1800's.

"I learned that Frederick Douglass escaped from being a slave and he went through a lot of hard times but he taught himself how to read  and write and became very educated and successful," says Sarah Ward, who toured the home recently.

Susan Nako brought her family from New York so her son, Simon, could learn about Douglass.

"Simon's list for his first grade class for Black History Month did not include Frederick Douglass," says Nako. "and I am appalled because he is my hero from when I was a little girl."

Michael Scott and his wife came from nearby Virginia. He says its important for African Americans to learn about their leaders.

"In this day and time, a lot of African American children don't know about Frederick Douglass. In order for us to go forward, we have got to remember our past and where we came from and those who paved the way for us."

The National Park Service, which manages Frederick Douglass' home, is working on expanding the tour as interest grows among people seeking knowledge about African-American leaders.

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