Tucked away just blocks off the southeast waterfront in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass spent his last years in a house named Cedar Hill — a home afforded to him less than a year after he had been appointed the nation’s first black U.S. marshal.
On a quiet, rainy Wednesday 140 years later, the U.S. Marshals Service honored Douglass with a wreath-laying ceremony normally reserved for fallen officers, this time representing the historic appointment that integrated the service.
“I knew he was a marshal, but I didn’t realize the significance,” Nettie Washington Douglass said in the visitors center of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site on the same land her great-great-grandfather purchased in 1878.
Douglass had been experiencing financial troubles at that time. In 1874 his newspaper had shuttered, and several months after he became the president of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, the bank failed.
But in March 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican who had won a contested election over Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden, appointed Douglass as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, allowing him financial security in his waning years.
Douglass’ appointment, along with that of Bass Reeves — a deputy U.S. Marshal in Arkansas around the same time — marked the beginning of a long history of the Marshals’ involvement in civil rights movements, including providing black leaders like Martin Luther King with protection and escorting black students into newly integrated schools in the South.
“He was a true agent of change in American history,” David Harlow, acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service, said Wednesday at the ceremony. “The U.S. Marshals Service is honored to have played a part in the life and history of Frederick Douglass.”
Mr. Harlow quoted a passage Douglass wrote about his appointment, acknowledging its significance in his memoir.
“My appointment as United States Marshal of the District of Columbia was in keeping with the rest of my life as a freeman,” Douglass wrote in “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” “It was an innovation upon long established usage and opposed to the general current and sentiment in the community.”
Efforts were made by members of the bar to defeat his confirmation in the Senate, but Douglass prevailed. As a U.S. Marshal, he would work on federal matters in his study on the property at Cedar Hill. One of his biggest contributions was improving conditions at the D.C. Jail, according to Mr. Harlow.
His service with the Marshals Service was one small facet of a diverse life. The visitors center at the site of the Douglass house features myriad artifacts from Douglass’ life as an abolitionist, journalist, statesman, diplomat and patron of the arts.
“We tell his story every single day in this house,” Ann Honious, a deputy superintendent with the National Park Service, said Wednesday at the ceremony.