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Frederick Douglass

“Sage of Anacostia”

His final years were spent largely at Cedar Hill and dealing with the continuing struggles for black justice. Reconstruction in the south had done little to improve the economic situation of former slaves and eventually the North and South reunited for economic and societal reasons. Douglass disagreed with those former slaves known as “Exodusers” who chose to move from the south to western territories because of their lack of work and status. He felt they needed to stay in the south to combat the inequality and to enact change. The White and Black issue was still not being addressed sufficiently enough to make progress for the blacks still living in abject poverty. Many blacks felt that Douglass was out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Douglass was realigned with the direness of the situation when social reformer Ida B. Wells requested his support in combating the practice of black lynching that was becoming a rampant form of terrorism in the south. The idea that free men were being targeted by white renegades made Douglass declare that the 1890s was turning into the most dangerous decade for black people. He found his voice again in speaking out against lynching and also the renewed interest in women’s suffrage. In a sense it was like he had regained his sense of purpose for causes that still needed to be addressed in the public’s mind. Once again he was lecturing and using oratory to confront injustices.

Death came to Douglass on February 20, 1895, most likely from a sudden heart attack. The following obituary was recorded in The New York Times on February 21, 1895:

Washington, Feb. 20 –Frederick Douglass dropped dead in the hallway of his residence on Anacostia Heights this evening at 7 o’clock. He had been in the highest spirits, and apparently in the best of health, despite his seventy-eight years, when death overtook him.

This morning he was driven to Washington, accompanied by his wife. She left him at the Congressional Library, and he continued to Metzerott Hall, where he attended the sessions of the Women’s Council in the forenoon and the afternoon, returning to Cedar Hill, his residence, between 5 and 6 o’clock. After dining, he had a chat in the hallway with his wife about the doings of the council. He grew very enthusiastic in his explanation of one of the events of the day, when he fell upon his knees, with hands clasped.

Mrs. Douglass, thinking this was part of his description, was not alarmed, but as she looked he sank lower and lower, and finally lay stretched upon the floor, breathing his last. Realizing that he was ill, she raised his head, and then understood that he was dying. She was alone in the house, and rushed to the front door with cries for help. Some men who were near by quickly responded, and attempted to reassure the dying man. One of them called Dr. J. Stewart Harrison, and while he was injecting a restorative into the patient’s arm, Mr. Douglass passed away, seemingly without pain.

Mr. Douglass was to deliver a lecture tonight at Hillside African Church, near his home, and was waiting for a carriage when talking to his wife. The carriage arrived just as he died.

Mrs. Douglass said to-night that her husband had apparently been in the best of health lately, and had shown unusual vigor for one of his years. No arrangements, she said, would be made for his funeral until his children could be consulted.

On the morning of February 25, the Douglass family conducted a private funeral at Cedar Hill. After the funeral, the body was conveyed to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington for a public viewing. Later that afternoon, Douglass was transported by train to Rochester, New York. The following day, Tuesday, February 26, Douglass’ body lied in state in the city hall. At 2:00 pm another funeral was conducted at the Central Presbyterian Church on Church Street. Following this final funeral, his body was conveyed in a formal procession from Church Street to State Street, then to East Main Street to South St. Paul, then to Mt. Hope Avenue where his body was interred in Mount Hope Cemetery. He was laid to rest with his first wife, and to be later joined in 1903 by his second wife.

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