Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818-1895) and his wife Anna Murray Douglass purchased this house in Uniontown (now Old Anacostia) in 1877. He and his family were among the first African Americans to own a house in this primarily white enclave, which was Washington's first suburb. When the Douglasses bought the estate it comprised nine acres, a house, a barn, and flower and vegetable gardens. One year later, Douglass expanded his property to 15 acres with the purchase of adjoining lots.
Douglass became known as the "Sage of Anacostia" because of his leadership in the neighborhood and across the city. Douglass was a member of the Uniontown Literary Society, a frequent speaker at local churches, and a close friend to well-known lawyer John A. Moss.
Douglass was born Frederick Bailey (he changed his name in later life) in Tuckahoe, Maryland, and was taken to Baltimore, Maryland, at around eight years old. He learned to read and write, although education was forbidden for enslaved people. With the assistance of Anna Murray (ca. 1813-1882), he escaped to Massachusetts, where he began to lecture on the abolition of slavery. In Massachusetts, he and Anna Murray were married. In 1845 he published the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was influential and widely read.
In 1870 Douglass moved to Washington from Rochester, New York, as corresponding editor of the New (National) Era. In 1874 the newspaper folded, and Douglass embarked on a new career of government service. He served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia (1877-1881), recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (1881-1886), and minister (ambassador) to Haiti (1889-1891). In 1881 Douglass completed his third autobiography, Life and Times. Douglass was an enormously influential writer and orator on abolition, civil rights, and women's rights. Anna Murray Douglass died in 1882.
In 1884 Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman who worked under his leadership as a copyist in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds office. This union became a subject of controversy both locally and nationally, with many questioning Douglass's commitment to "the race," while others were unfazed.
In 1877, when Douglass purchased Cedar Hill, he also bought three houses located at 2000-2004 17th Street, NW, as a real estate investment. His son Lewis Douglass resided at 2002 17th Street from 1877 until his death in 1908. After Douglass's death in 1895, Cedar Hill fell into disrepair. Beginning in the 1920s, through the efforts of Anacostia residents and the National Association of Colored Women, the Douglass Memorial and Historical Association was founded to maintain the house as a historic shrine. It is currently operated by the National Park Service as a house museum open to the public.