- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

When Iantha Gantt-Wright first stepped across the threshold from the family room to the library of the Frederick Douglass home on Cedar Hill, she felt a chill in her body.
"You felt it, didn't you?" her astute guide asked. The celebrated abolitionist's books and papers were stacked in the library.
His barbells were lying on the bedroom floor. His cane and hat rested against the desk.
"It blew my mind, I felt like I was following in his footsteps," said Ms. Gantt-Wright, who directs enhancment of cultural diversity programs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Today's visitors to the Anacostia home of the "father of the civil rights movement" will hardly encounter the same thrill.
The cedar trees that dotted the panoramic Potomac River view for which the homestead in Southeast Washington was named no longer line the landscape. The library shelves are soiled and empty. The papers have been removed. The books have been packed away in a Library of Congress storage room. "The books are no longer there because of the challenges to the house," she said.
The ceiling and the walls in the library of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site are now streaked with water stains due to ongoing moisture problems. Light has damaged several 19th-century photographs. Though construction continues, there is no archaeological oversight, threatening the integrity of the property.
It will take $2 million of "critical preservation needs" to turn the house at 14th and W streets SE into a spirited home again, based on NPCA findings. The National Park Service has allocated $429,000 annually to operate the home, which is on the list of America's Ten Most Endangered National Parks.
The NPCA, a nonprofit organization founded in 1919 to protect the national park system, is lobbying Congress "to live up to their responsibility" by providing increased funding to protect Douglass' belongings and the integrity of the property and to upgrade maintenance of daily operations.
"The staff does a heck of a job with what little they're given by Congress," said Ms. Gantt-Wright. "They're just really struggling to preserve the materials."
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, pledged to "ensure that that money is in the Interior [Department] appropriations bill" during a press conference Thursday at which NPCA also released its fifth State of the Parks study.
Mr. Jackson said he hopes the Interior Department puts a priority on the Douglass home and other critically underfunded sites, "so that we might preserve [the home] for future generations, that they might glean new insights into the freedoms that our nation seeks to preserve, not only domestically but around our world as well."
But Mr. Jackson's support is not enough. As Black History Month ends and Women's History Month begins, it would behoove blacks and women to lend a helping hand.
This is our history, and it is our financial responsibility to preserve it.
While congressional funding pays for staffing and maintenance, private donations are sought by Frederick Douglass Memorial Historical Association and the Friends of Frederick Douglass for special projects and to save the home, which was established as a historic site in 1962. The site welcomed 29,000 visitors in 2001, mostly local school students.
"We don't need funds, we need support, and picking up the phone is the easiest thing to do," Andrea Keller, spokeswoman for NPCA, said. Indeed, how hard can it be to make a phone call to a congressional representative to lobby for funding for the Douglass home?
Jim Nations, vice president of NPCA's State of the Parks program, said the Douglass home serves as a "reminder of the human yearning for freedom," and "when we let historic sites like the Douglass home decay, we turn our backs to the very roots of this nation."
The Douglass home in one of only 12 sites within the 388-unit National Park Service system expressly created to preserve and interpret black history and culture in this country.
Other sites include the Martin Luther King National Historical Monument in Atlanta, the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the Selma-to-Montgomery Trail in Alabama, the Brown v. Board of Education site in Topeka, Kan., and the Mary McLeod Bethune home in the District.
Douglass taught us that "power concedes nothing without dissent, it never has and it never will."
Born to a slave woman and white father Feb. 14, 1817, in Talbot County, Md., Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey escaped and eventually purchased his freedom from donations he received while speaking out against slavery during a European tour. He was instrumental in maintaining the Underground Railroad and changed his name to Douglass while living in New England in the late 1830s.
He forged a personal relationship with Abraham Lincoln, whom he challenged to free all slaves in the North as well as the South. Though he appealed to blacks to join the Union Army during the Civil War, he was forced to flee to Canada after the Virginia governor swore out a warrant for his arrest and capture.
The journalistic crusader, with provocative oratorical skills, was a role model for black political and social activism set forth in the heyday of the black press. He moved to the District in 1870, where until 1874 he published and edited the New National Era, a D.C. newspaper distributed to serve former slaves.
He was appointed marshal for the District in 1877 and appointed recorder of deeds in 1881. After returning from a speech to the National Council of Women on Feb. 20, 1895, he died at Cedar Hill.
"Right is of no sex Truth is of no color God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren" was the motto of the popular and influential North Star, which Douglass created in 1847.
Douglass' Rochester, N.Y., home containing many of his papers was destroyed in a fire set by irate detractors. It would be a shame if what remains of his artifacts and the Cedar Hill home are not restored for lack of funds and benign neglect.
For information on the Douglass home, call NPCA at 202/454-3332.

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