04/16/2012 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2012

Emancipation Day 2012: What Frederick Douglass Would Think of Ward 8's 21st-Century Troubles

To understand the importance of Washington D.C. Emancipation Day, look no further than the story of those who thought this event would never happen.

When we think about the development of America's democracy, we shower attention toward our Founding Fathers. A short drive down the Potomac River leads you to George Washington's Mount Vernon -- the home of a general whose bravery on the battlefield led a developing country to independent footing. Drive southwest for about two hours and you find a similar picture at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello -- the abode of a thinker who etched that freedom into the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson and Washington served a nation that was rudimentary at best. They managed wealth that left them vulnerable to conflicting views. Perhaps we can learn more about the United States today through the lens of a man whose accomplishments arrived without the help of slave labor. As the District Of Columbia commemorates the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Day, Frederick Douglass' story should be at the forefront of our thinking.

Three days prior to this landmark event, I visited Douglass' Cedar Hill home in Anacostia. He purchased the estate in September 1877 -- a structure now towering over a community of private homes that have seen better days. Douglass arrived as the 60-year-old United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, cementing his status as a pivotal abolitionist figure. The home stands as a relic of Douglass' unprecedented power to break racial barriers with his voice and pen.

"I trust I am not dreaming, but the events taking place seem like a dream," said Douglass after the District's 1862 decision to free its remaining 3,128 slaves.

One and a half centuries later, some D.C. residents are at a loss for words. At a time when men and women of all races can serve in elected office, Capitol Hill appears to be impervious to the circumstances crippling spots like Ward 8. Weave your way through the area's roads of unrelenting poverty, and you have to believe that Douglass would be infuriated by the conditions surrounding his home. On paper, Anacostia is plagued by a 28 percent unemployment rate. In person, boarded-up residences, gated businesses and barren plots of land are commonplace, painting a scene that resembles a nightmare more than anything else.

What sympathy would Douglass have for our government today? To reach the height of his picturesque Cedar Hill home, he had to fight through more than just unemployment. For 77 years, Douglass knew what it was like to live without control. As a young boy, he taught himself to read in the face of zero educational opportunities. As an enslaved man, he disguised himself as a sailor and used a friend's passport to escape the beatings that suffocated his adolescence. As a free man, he earned money primarily from public speaking -- funds attained through prose that often denounced the institution responsible for stifling his own progress: slavery.

Knowing that politics' fickle nature had the power to erase years of positives, Douglass built his battles for the long haul. At the time of his death, the African-American community was still mired in its quest for equality. The term "free" was little more than a label for many blacks, and this battle received little official help until 1964's landmark Civil Rights Act. Douglass knew that to generate momentum, the average citizen needed to do more than just accept the status quo. They needed to "agitate."

Fast forward to 2012, and part of the agitation stems from politicians themselves. Exhibit A: former D.C. mayor and current City Councilmember Marion Barry. To "celebrate" his victory in April's Ward 8 primary, Barry suffered a severe case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Forty-eight hours after winning the Democratic nod, he offered some insight on the situation in his area, choosing words that veered far away from Douglass' vision.

"We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops," Barry said. "They ought to go. I'm going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too."

On days like this, comments like that revive the very warnings Douglass stressed. In April 1865, he authored a speech entitled "What the Black Man Wants." Douglass expressed his unwavering desire for "immediate, unconditional, and universal" enfranchisement. "Without this, [our] liberty is a mockery," he wrote.

At the close of the tour, those words were indelibly stamped in my brain. Exit through the front door, and you stand atop Cedar Hill one more time, surveying a pristine view of Washington's low-lying skyline of monuments. Topping that list is the U.S. Capitol building. If Douglass were to stare at that structure today, the likely message to Congress would be "is anyone home?" Government response aside, he would then turn to the people, reminding them that this all begins with their vote.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post listed Douglass as the Grand Marshal of D.C. His title was in fact the United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. Douglass also purchased his Cedar Hill home in September 1877, not 1878 -- a 9.75-acre spot of land that was expanded to 15.5 acres the following year.