Why is Frederick Douglass “The Lion of Anacostia”?

FD Front page of Harper's 1883Throughout his life Frederick Douglass carried many titles such as Honorable Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, Esquire. At a young age he became a licensed local preacher and throughout his life many men felt compelled to address him as Reverend Douglass. He was all of these distinctions in official Washington but in his neighborhood, the city’s first sub-division, Douglass was known as “Old Man Eloquent,” “The Sage of Anacostia,” “The Sage of Cedar Hill” and “The Lion of Anacostia.”

His leonine head of hair appeared in every image and print that ever captured Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of the 19th century. Over the years his hair and beard turned snowy white. As United States Marshal of the country’s capital city he walked the neighborhood streets from his Victorian mansion at Cedar Hill across the Navy Yard bridge over the Anacostia River and then down Pennsylvania Avenue to his office at City Hall. He continued this practice for many years. “Frederick Douglass, in spite of his age, walks about Washington as briskly as a boy,” observed the New York Tribune in early 1884.

A half-century before, Douglass was a young lion, an adolescent slave roaming the streets of Baltimore, Maryland hunting for scattered newspapers, torn Bible pages, scanning broadsides, and generally searching for anything with reading matter. As a young lion and fugitive slave Douglass rose to become a self-elevated king of antebellum America’s anti-slavery jungle.

Two men tender introductions to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography. Journalist William Lloyd Garrison leads with a Preface and abolitionist Wendell Phillips follows with a letter.

From Boston in April 1845, Phillips begins, “You remember the old fable of “The Man and the Lion,” where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented “when the lions wrote history.”

I am glad the time has come when the “lions write history.”

Douglass was the king of his household, his neighborhood, and the city in which he died on February 20, 1895. He was and remains “The Lion of Anacostia.”

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