American social reformer, abolitionist, and writer, Frederick Douglass, purchased these three houses at the corner of 17th and U streets NW in 1877. Douglass spent his life fighting for justice and equality. Born into slavery in 1818, he escaped as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, participated in the first womens’ rights convention, and wrote three autobiographies. He was internationally recognized as an uncompromising abolitionist, indefatigable worker for justice and equal opportunity, and an unyielding defender of women's rights. He became a trusted advisor to Abraham Lincoln, United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C., and Minister-General to the Republic of Haiti.
Douglass purchased the three houses as a real estate investment at the same time as he was purchasing Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia (now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, 1411 W St SE, Washington, D.C.). Douglass’ oldest son, Lewis Henry, inherited the properties and lived at 2002 17th Street, N.W., from 1877 until his death in 1908 at age 67.
James E. Storum, an educator and entrepreneur who founded the Capital Savings Bank, the city's first African American-owned bank, lived at 2004 17th St. Little is known about other residents of these properties.
Frederick Douglass’ widow inherited the property – and more
Frederick Douglass died in 1895. An article in the Washington Post on April 23, 1897, reported on the assignment of property to a widow. Justice Hagner, in Equity Court No. 2, entered a decree assigning the “dower” (widow’s share) of Helen Douglass, widow of the late Frederick Douglass. The judgment gave her all of DC Lot 150. She also received by the decree a parcel of land containing nine and one-quarter acres in Anacostia and other property in Virginia. The lawsuit followed a dispute with other heirs of Frederick Douglass.
A map of around that period shows that Lot 150 was large, including much more than the three houses which her husband had purchased.
A segregated neighborhood
These “Second Empire-style”1 rowhouses on 17th Street were built in 1875 and are contributing properties to the Strivers' Section Historic District2. The Strivers' Section was an enclave roughly bounded by Swann Street on the south, Florida Avenue on the north and west, the 16th Street Historic District on the east, and 19th Street on the west, comprising upper-middle-class African Americans, often community leaders, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term “Strivers” was seemingly intended to be disparaging, suggesting an attempt by some black families to escape poverty. The area was largely rural farmland in the early 19th century but was platted for development by 1852, establishing its current configuration of streets, alleys, and lots. The land was purchased by speculators who built over 150 houses between 1873 and 1875. The houses were popular and the neighborhood’s proximity to streetcar routes and to Howard University attracted members of Washington’s black elite.
In 1913, some houses in the neighborhood were designated for colored tenants. 1700 Florida Avenue is just around the corner from these three properties.
In 1920 a Black family moved into the 1600 block of S Street, two blocks south of these properties. Probably not coincidentally, that same year, residents on the 1700 block of S Street drew up a Restrictive Covenant designed to control the racial character of the neighborhood and got a significant number of residents to sign it into effect. These covenants were a common tool for enforcing segregation in the early 20th century. For new construction, these covenants might require that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon―or prohibit its sale or lease to certain groups, most often African Americans. For the sale of an existing building, the covenants could prohibit the sale of the house to Black or Jewish purchasers and require that a similar covenant be placed on any subsequent sale. The S Street covenant was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1926 but challenged again and struck down in 1948.
1 For a detailed description of the Second Empire architectural style, visit https://www.wentworthstudio.com/historic-styles/second-empire/
2 For more information about the Strivers’ Section Historic District, visit https://planning.dc.gov/publication/strivers-section-historic-district