May 21, 2014

Mary B. Talbert: The Preservation Champion You Might Not Have Heard Of

  • By: Lauren Walser
Credit: MarkSweep, Wikimedia Commons
Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave, is one of the most influential abolitionists in American history. His home in Anacostia, D.C., Cedar Hill, has undergone a series of renovations.

In 1917, readers of The Crisis magazine, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), would have come across a powerful call to action, written by one Mrs. Mary B. Talbert.

Talbert, an educator, civil rights activist, and then-president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) had turned her eyes to Cedar Hill, the Washington, D.C., home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The NACWC, at its biennial meeting just months earlier, had created a committee to consider the possibility of assisting the trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Association (FDMHA) with the care of the house and the legacy Douglass left behind.

Credit: National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Cedar Hill houses Douglass' personal study and library, depicted here in a photograph taken in 1962.

She writes:

“After careful consideration of all the facts we conclude that this is the psychological moment for us, as women, to show our true worth and prove that the Negro woman of to-day measures up to those strong and sainted women of our race, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Amanda Smith, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and others who passed through the fire of slavery and its galling remembrances.

“We believe the attainment of the goal depends upon the enlistment of every Negro, man, woman, boy and girl in America. We seriously realize that it will require us to mobilize all the resources of our Association to show that we are not afraid to put ourselves on record as being able to save the home by one day’s co-operative effort.”

Credit: Speaker John Boehner, Flickr
The plaster bust in Douglass' home is a 2013 replica of the original marble bust made in 1875. It currently resides at Frederick Douglass Hall at the University of Rochester.

Powerful words from a woman who would go on to make significant strides in the early days of the country’s preservation movement.

“She was a forward-thinking woman in terms of what we think of when we think of preservation,” says Ka’mal McClarin, museum curator at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. “What you have is her, along with other women of her day, preserving Mr. Douglass’ legacy by really seeing this home become a landmark, while at the same time carrying out the wishes of Mr. Douglass’ second wife, Mrs. Helen Pitts Douglass.”

Frederick Douglass purchased the Cedar Hills home in 1877. He made several additions to the house, which was built between 1855 and 1859, and at the time of his death in 1895, the house had become a 21-room mansion.

Credit: National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Two men repair the steps of Douglass' home in Anacostia during the 1920s' renovation process.

After Douglass’ death, Pitts Douglass urged the U.S. Congress to charter the Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Association. And when she died in 1903, ownership of the house went to the association.

In the years following Talbert’s piece in The Crisis magazine, she, along with other members of the NACWC, the FDMHA, and others dedicated to the preservation of Douglass’ home, worked to raise money to pay off the mortgage on the house and begin maintenance and preservation efforts.

By 1922, the NACWC completed the first restoration of the home.

Forty years later, the National Park Service took over ownership of the property, and the next round of restoration work was completed in 1972.

Credit: National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Douglass' home in 1960 before the next round of renovations.

Credit: National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
In 1972, the renovations on the home were completed.

And in 2004, the NPS launched an approx. $2.7 million restoration project, in which windows were repaired, shutters replaced, and the house’s original wallpaper was restored. Additionally, a study was conducted to determine the original color of the exterior of the house. The house re-opened to the public in January 2007.

In other words, Talbert helped start a movement.

“She left a legacy for us as we carry on the next wave of stewardship through the National Park Service,” McClarin says.

As the National Park Service continues to maintain and restore the house, as Talbert and the members of the FDMHA and the NACWC envisioned, Talbert’s own legacy lives on.

“The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is so frequently credited with starting the preservation movement,” says Tanya Bowers, director of diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s so wonderful to see other Americans working diligently to preserve their American history, which is really our shared American history. Preservation has been a practice in the African-American community going back for generations.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

From the places listed in the Green Book to the homes of icons like Nina Simone and Pauli Murray, join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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