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A piece of Frederick Douglass history is on the market

A piece of famed reformer Frederick Douglass's legacy recently hit the market — a one-bedroom rowhouse in Fells Point.

The home at 524 S. Dallas St. is one of the least-known accomplishments of the famed 19th-century abolitionist and orator, who escaped slavery in Baltimore to become a bestselling author, newspaper editor, sought-after speaker, federal marshal, U.S. minister to Haiti and long-shot vice-presidential candidate.

But the sellers are hoping that the home's connection to Douglass — celebrated on an outdoor plaque — will help clinch a deal.

"Realtors are always looking for points of interest," said Tom Rybczynski, a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker, who listed the house in August for $179,900. "It may be of value to someone. It may just be a great point of conversation."

The home is one of five on Dallas Street that Douglass constructed as rental properties for African-Americans in the 1890s, according to the Maryland Historical Trust. State records show he bought the land in 1892 for $1,800 from trustees of the Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church.

The "Douglass Place" homes have been improved since — think an indoor bathroom and electricity — but traces of the original construction remain, including a narrow, winding staircase some said is typical of the period.

"It was never intended to be fancy, but it's really a classic rowhouse of that time," said seller John Newton, 66, who said the story piqued his interest when he bought the home in 1999.

Historians said it's not clear what prompted Douglass to buy in Baltimore, where he jumped a train to flee north 177 years ago this week. Though he returned regularly to the city to speak, he lived the last years of his life in Washington, where he owned a hilltop estate known as Cedar Hill.

Some cite ties to the church, where he reportedly worshipped as a youth when the street was known as Strawberry Alley. Other accounts suggest he was persuaded by local friends, such as teacher Sarah J. Vodery, who according to her 1915 obituary in the Afro American newspaper was a longtime member of the church there.

Lou Fields, head of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council, who has been taking tourists to the block for 15 years, said he believes the location had "sentimental value."

"I believe Douglass saw this particular site as the place where he'd learned about God. It's the place where he met his first father figure, Charles Lawson, who taught Douglass how to pray," he said.

The purchase also may have been part of a series of real estate investments and business ventures that he and his children became involved in as the family grew more prominent and prosperous. (His son Charles Douglass, for example, developed Highland Beach in Anne Arundel County as a summer retreat for African-Americans around the same time.)

When Frederick Douglass died in 1895, he left an estate that included several properties, an inheritance that newspaper accounts from the period estimated at $200,000 — more than $5.5 million in today's terms.

For Douglass, buying property after having been property was significant, said C. James Trotman, professor emeritus and founder of the Douglass Institute at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, who wrote a recent biography of Douglass.

"It was another act on his part to show another transformation in his life," he said.

But despite his wealth, it's not Douglass' business activities that attract most historians' attention.

"It's not insignificant, but it's not the big thing about newspapers or women's rights or abolition," Trotman said. "It doesn't have that kind of glamor, but it is something that he was interested in."

When Douglass made his investment, Baltimore was booming. The population grew by about a third between 1860 and 1890 as people, black and white, came for jobs in manufacturing and the railroads, but the period also was marked by financial upheaval, and slums were a concern.

In 1891, just a few months before the Dallas Street deal, Douglass spoke at a temperance meeting in Irving Park, marveling at the way construction was changing the city of his youth.

"I remember when the highest house in Fells Point was three stories high," he said, according to a Baltimore Sun account. "Now in some parts of Baltimore, they are running up to 10 stories."

In the same speech, Douglass urged his audience to invest.

"One of the curses of our race is poverty," he said. "Money is not exactly the root of all evil. We must acquire property, and we must leave something."

Baltimore historian Helena Hicks, a civil rights activist who has researched Fells Point, said she doesn't know how successful the Dallas Street investment was for Douglass, citing one letter that suggested Douglass's agent had a hard time collecting rent amid the financial panic of 1893.

In 1906, Douglass's family sold the properties at 516-524 S. Dallas St. for $3,000 to Samuel Siegael, identified in a Baltimore City directory from that time as president of the High Street Permanent Building Loan and Savings Association of Baltimore City.

Even as the homes passed through multiple owners, Douglass's connection to the block was not forgotten. A 1932 article in the Afro American about Centennial Methodist Episcopal spotlighted the ties, noting with "deep regret" that the name Douglass Row had been discarded.

"It is to be hoped that section, once it gets back into the hands of colored people, will honor the name of the great liberator by renaming the place Douglass Row," the article said.

The National Register of Historic Places recognized the connection in 1983. The city gave the homes historic status in about 2003.

Fields said now that 524 S. Dallas St. is on the market, he wants to persuade the city and state to buy the house and use it as a museum. He made a similar effort in 1999, he said.

"I do tours all the time, but we can't really go inside the buildings because they're privately owned," said Fields, who is leading a tour there on Wednesday. So far, "I haven't been able to sing the song well enough to get the city and state to invest."

Newton said he grew accustomed to hearing tourists outside the house, which sits at the corner of Fleet Street close to the H&S Bakery. He decided to sell the property this summer after moving several years ago to his wife's home elsewhere in Baltimore, hoping that the real estate market had recovered.

At the moment, Rybczynski said, it's the home's size that's keeping it on the market. The historic staircase makes it complicated to fit two bedrooms upstairs and similar staircases have been removed in renovations in many homes from that era. He said he remains optimistic.

"There's got to be a buyer out there for a one-bedroom," he said. "We just haven't met them yet."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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