A couple of years ago, in the halcyon days before the pandemic, I went with a small group of friends to visit Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’s house in the southeastern corner of Washington, D.C. On the way there, we drove past the rowhouses of what used to be called Uniontown, the city’s first suburb, constructed in the 1850s in what was then farmland. Uniontown was originally “whites only”; Douglass, being Douglass, bought the house anyway, and lived in it from 1878 until his death in 1895. Eventually, the house became a landmark, even a kind of cultural center. The growing community of free Black people in the area sought his advice there; the city sought his services too. Douglass was named U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, then its recorder of deeds. He also upgraded Cedar Hill, a classic Victorian home, expanding it to 21 rooms, so that it could accommodate his children and grandchildren, as well as a stream of visitors. Now you can see the table where he had dinner, the desk where he wrote his speeches, his book collection, the iron cooking pots in his kitchen.
Uniontown is today called Anacostia—so many other places in America were named Uniontown that the local postmaster had become confused—and has evolved quite a bit since Douglass moved there, but so has all of Washington. What was a muddy village in a swamp, so unpleasant that it was considered a hardship posting for foreign diplomats, grew quickly after the Civil War, eventually becoming a magnet for Black migrants from the South as well as for ambitious people from around the country. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Americans moved to Detroit to work in factories, to New York to work on Wall Street, and to Washington to work for the government, for law firms, for research institutes. Slowly, Washington acquired a notably educated population—on the list of zip codes boasting the highest percentage of graduate degrees, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4 are all in Washington—as well as a full complement of sports teams and an indigenous musical genre, go-go.