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Crime steals Douglass' legacy

When abolitionist Frederick Douglass moved into his home in Southeast Washington, D.C., in 1877, he felt he was making progress in his battle for equality of men and women of all colors.

In the same Anacostia neighborhood a century later, a new war is being waged. While Douglass' 174th birthday was being remembered Friday at his restored home, the surrounding area continued its fight against "out of control" crime.

Just in the last two months in the southeast quadrant of Washington, police received reports of three murders, one sexual assault, 34 robberies and 26 break-ins, most of which occurred in the Anacostia area.

Rob Warren, speaking on behalf of Anacostia City Council member Harold Brazil at the memorial, said:

"Douglass was born into slavery and abject poverty and rose above it. A lot of us are born into poverty, born into slavery of different kinds: drugs, racism, undereducation."

But such problems seemed surmountable to Douglass when he became the first black property owner in Anacostia, then called Uniontown. From his home, Douglass could see the Capitol Building in the distance across the Anacostia River. His nearest neighbor was a mile and many cedar trees away. Afternoon teas, croquet matches and Shakespeare readings were popular pastimes.

But the pastures and farms of Anacostia have been replaced by houses and apartment buildings, often poorly maintained and marred with graffiti.

"There are some streets that aren't bad, but there are other streets that are frightening," Warren said. He said he was walking a block from Douglass' home with a group one night late last year "and just out of the blue we heard gun shots. The guy (shooting) was on parole, on probation for a shooting in Virginia. It's eerie. Before it was just the drug dealers. Now people are just shooting people because they feel like it."

Henry "Little Man" James, 19, "felt like busting someone" when he allegedly shot and killed Patricia Bigby Lexie in Anacostia on Nov. 16. He is currently on trial for another shooting that occurred in the same neighborhood a week earlier.

Sally Weimbrom, also a member of Brazil's staff, said the city is trying to return the neighborhood to the people by enlisting residents as watchdogs. "We intend to set up a network so people know their neighbors and can work with the police," she said.

Pending legislation, imposing harsher penalties on violent criminals, along with an upcoming crime prevention seminar and educational programs for Anacostia's children, are also in the works.