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African-American destinations: Setting the bar

George Washington Carver’s Birthplace, courtesy National Park Service

When guests came to visit 19th-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass at his Cedar Hill home in Washington, D.C., they would often end up playing checkers with him in the front parlor.

An animated storyteller, Douglass had wheels put on his dining room chair so he could easily push himself back from the table to dramatize parts of stories he was telling.

And Douglass, a doting grandfather, would entertain his grandchildren by playing the violin, which he had taught himself to play.

Today, visitors to Cedar Hill can see a well-worn checkerboard and checkers in the fully furnished parlor, the violin he played for his grandchildren and the rolling chair sitting at the dining room table just waiting for another dramatic and entertaining story from the house’s owner.

The amazingly preserved Cedar Hill, the result of efforts by Douglass’ second wife, is part of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. It is one of several national park sites that present a fascinating window into the lives of pioneering African Americans, not only their achievements as scientists, educators, entrepreneurial businesspeople, civil and human rights activists, but also their personal sides.

Frederick Douglass
When she died in 1903, Douglass’ widow, Helen Pitts Douglass, set up a nonprofit organization to preserve his house and its contents and open it to the public.

“We are really lucky,” said Braden Paynter, a national park ranger at the site. “We have his house, the grounds and so much of their stuff in there. It’s an incredible material record, and in space that was Douglass’. We are able to restore it to something believably Douglass.

“It lets you go into many different stories about his life and lets you see the many sides of Douglass.”

Douglass purchased the house, which became part of the National Park System in 1972, in 1877 and spent the last 18 years of his life there. During that time he greatly expanded the Victorian-style structure that sits high on a hill in the Anacostia section of the capital.

More than 90 percent of the furnishings and artifacts in the house are original, and most of the rooms in the house are viewed on ranger-led tours.

In the library, where Douglass would spend up to five hours a day studying and writing after his daily morning walks, are his roll-top desk and his collection of walking canes, including one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite canes given to Douglass by Mary Todd Lincoln following her husband’s assassination.

Paynter said that when the hundreds of books in the library were being taken off the shelves for restoration, speeches, flowers and even the original deed to the house were found pressed between their pages.

A 20-minute film at the visitors center gives a good overview of Douglass’ life. Groups are taken through the house 15 at a time.

George Washington Carver
Curtis Gregory, a park ranger at the George Washington Carver National Monument, near Diamond, Mo., said one of the first things visitors ask is “Why are you here?”

“Most people associate Carver with Tuskegee Institute. That was his home, but he was born in Missouri,” said Gregory. “Our site is where he was born and probably spent the first 12 to 13 years of his life.”

The 240-acre site includes a museum, an outline of the cabin in which Carver was born in 1864 as a slave and an 1881 house built by the original owner of the farm after his house was destroyed by a tornado.

“Carver never lived in the house, but we believe he came back to visit,” said Gregory.

The site also includes the three-quarter-mile Carver Nature Trail, which leads through the southwest Missouri woods and rolling hills that stirred Carver’s youthful curiosity about nature. Along the trail is a statue of Carver as a young boy where visitors can hear a recording of Carver reciting the poem “Equipment” by Edgar Guest.

Gregory said the site originally focused on Carver’s boyhood but now interprets his entire life.
The museum includes a film on his life, interactive exhibits and personal artifacts, including letters and some of his original artwork.

“People are amazed he had so many different talents,” said Gregory. In addition to his pioneering scientific work with peanuts and farming, Carver painted — he originally left the farm to become an artist and took painting lessons in Kansas — played music, did needlework and wrote poetry.

“We try to make George as human as possible,” said Gregory. “He was a very complicated person. If you think you know George Washington Carver, you don’t know him.

“We tell the story of a man who was foremost an educator and humanitarian. We try to get across that he not only was a scientist, but his overall goal was to help those poor farmers of the South and teach at Tuskegee. All the other things fell into place.”

Booker T. Washington
Carver’s career was closely entwined with Booker T. Washington, who brought him to Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., where Carver taught for 47 years. Both men’s careers are thoroughly interpreted at the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.

Like Carver, Washington’s birthplace is also a national monument.

“He was born here in 1856 into slavery and lived here the first nine years of his life as a slave,” said Timothy Sims, chief of interpretation at the Booker T. Washington National Monument near Hardy, Va. “His mother was the plantation cook, and he lived in the kitchen cabin with his mother, half brother and half sister.

“The Civil War occurred while he was here, and at the end of the war, Booker T. and the other slaves on the farm experienced emancipation.

“There are outlines on the ground where the birthplace cabin was and the big house was,” said Sims. “A reconstructed furnished cabin sits on the original location of the kitchen cabin, which has been documented archaeologically.”

Sims said a re-created farm on the site, complete with live animals and period gardens, represents a small mid-19th-century slaveholding tobacco farm in the Virginia Piedmont similar to the one on which Washington was born.

The site interprets the entire life of Washington, who founded and was the first principal of Tuskegee Institute and became one of the leading African-American educators and orators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“His life’s mission was to bring education to as many African-Americans in the South as he can to better their lives,” said Sims.

The newly expanded visitors center has a 14-minute film and exhibits about Carver. It will begin hosting traveling exhibits in February, and new permanent exhibits will be installed sometime in the future.

Rangers lead 45-minute walking tours of a quarter-mile trail through the historic area. “We give an overview of his life, what his critics had to say about him, and conclude with how he left a legacy that is still with us today,” said Sims.


Mary McLeod Bethune
Another African-American educator who left a lasting legacy was Mary McLeod Bethune, who overcame both racial and sexual prejudices in the early 20th century.

“She started an all-girls school in Daytona Beach, Fla., which currently is a university: Bethune-Cookman,” said Joy Kinard, site manager for the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. “She is quoted as saying she started it with one dollar and fifty cents, and faith in God. There were five little girls; today it is a nationally accredited school with more than 2,300 students.”

Bethune also was a civil rights activist, a feminist leader and an adviser to the powerful. She came to Washington in the 1930s to work with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and while there, she started the National Council of Negro Women, because she was denied membership in the National Council of Women.

“She got $15,000 from Marshall Field to purchase a property in Washington,” said Kinard. “Today, that is where we are. The house is on Logan Circle, about eight blocks from the White House, where she walked to meet with FDR and his wife. They also came to the house.

“The house was a place women sought refuge during segregated times and the modern civil rights movement.”

Kinard said four rooms in the 15-room Victorian townhouse, which was used by the National Council of Negro Women until 1966, 23 years after Bethune’s death, are on exhibit. They are the parlor, where Bethune greeted people and entertained; the conference room, where business was conducted; and her office and bedroom.

“She was an adviser to four sitting presidents, started a college, started an organization and was able to do all these things, travel all over the country and world, and still be a mother,” said Kinard. “She was able to do so much in life; and when you scratch the surface, you learn her parents were slaves, her older brothers and sisters were slaves.

“She was the first person born in her family after the end of slavery. She meant opportunity and change for her family. They made sure she got proper training and got to go to school. She surpassed expectations.”

Maggie L. Walker
Another pioneering African-American woman was Maggie Lena Walker, who gained national prominence as a businesswoman and community leader.

“The story of Maggie Walker is one of incredible accomplishments in the face of incredible obstacles,” said David Ruth, superintendent of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Va.

Walker’s drive and vision built the Independent Order of St. Luke — a fraternal organization that ministered to the sick and aged and promoted humanitarian causes — into a national force.

In the early 1900s, she founded a newspaper and the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming the first African-American woman in the United States to found and be president of a bank.

The bank later merged with two other Richmond banks to become the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which survives today as the oldest continuously operated African-American bank in the United States.

The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site preserves the 28-room house where Walker lived the last 30 years of her life, from 1904 to 1934.

“Rangers take you through the house and introduce you to what happened there,” said Ruth. “About 98 percent of the items belonged to her and are in the same place and situation where she actually had them.”

Family members, recognizing her national importance, kept the house as a shrine before it became part of the National Park System in 1978. It was opened to the public in 1982.

A visitors center and a restored historic building at the site have a film and exhibits about Walker’s life and Jackson Ward, the historic black neighborhood where she lived.

Ruth said the park service recently finished a podcast tour of the neighborhood “that tells what it was like in the 1920s when Maggie Walker lived there.”