Editor’s note: For Black History Month, The Root is speaking to the relatives of our most cherished African-American heroes in a series called Living With History. Today we feature Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a descendant of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and educator Booker T. Washington, and spoke to him about how the family are keeping their ancestors’ legacies alive and what it means to be born into two of America’s most important lineages.
On the Chesapeake Bay, there is a two-story Victorian cottage with a tower overlooking a cove. Every detail of the cottage, built in 1895 by Charles Douglass, including its view and design, was executed at the request of Frederick Douglass, his father.
It is at this home where Kenneth B. Morris Jr., 54, remembers spending his summers, gazing over the water on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Frederick Douglass, his great-great-great-grandfather, was born into slavery.
“Here was a man that understood that history was important and that we needed to know where we came from in order to know where we’re headed,” Morris told The Root. “And so even though he was born into slavery and had suffered unimaginable abuse, he never wanted to forget where he came from.”
Hailed as the “father of the civil rights movement,” Douglass was an abolitionist, acclaimed speaker, author, founder of the North Star newspaper, statesman and adviser to presidents. At 20 years old, he escaped slavery and fought to end slavery in the Southern United States before the Civil War. He became a free man eight years later.
Morris, a social entrepreneur, had spent most of his life avoiding the legacy of his family, which is twofold. Not only is he related to Douglass, but he is also Booker T. Washington’s great-great-grandson. His grandmother Nettie Hancock Washington, who was Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter, married Dr. Frederick Douglass III, the great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, thus uniting the bloodlines of the two historic families.
“At a very young age, [Douglass] understood when his master told him that education will [make him] unfit to be a slave. That knowledge was power, and it would be his key to freedom,” Morris said.
Washington would go on to become an instructor at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, known as Hampton University, and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, known as Tuskegee University. He is considered one of the most influential black educators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Around 5, 6 years old, I started to see that my ancestors were maybe a little bit different than my friends or my classmates because I could see them on money,” he said. “They were on [postage] stamps, schools, libraries ... bridges were named for them; and I visited places where there were statues of them.”
We were reminded of Douglass’ legacy last week after President Donald Trump spoke about the legendary abolitionist as if he didn’t know that Douglass had died in 1895.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more, I notice,” said the president Feb. 1 while surrounded by black supporters during a breakfast to mark the beginning of Black History Month.
Reactions on social media , of course, were swift. Later, the Douglass family released a statement via the Huffington Post, in which they listed more than a dozen of Douglass’ accomplishments and indicated that they believed that if the president had had more time, he would have elaborated, such as mentioning that:
Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job …
* Enduring the inhumanity of slavery after being born heir to anguish and exploitation but still managing to become a force for solace and liberty when America needed it most,
* Recognizing that knowledge was his pathway to freedom at such a tender age,
* Teaching himself to read and write and becoming one of the country’s most eloquent spokespersons,
* Standing up to his overseer to say that ‘I am a man!’ ...
Morris, the first male to unite the bloodlines, stayed away from the family legacy because he saw what it had done to his grandfather, who took his life over the pressure to live up to Douglass’ legacy. That changed in 2005, when he read a National Geographic article about present-day enslavement.
“Everything just really kind of welled up in me, and I realized that I had this platform that God has blessed me with, that my ancestors had built through struggle and sacrifice. And I knew that he was preparing me all along the way to do the work that we’re doing now,” he said.
In 2007 Morris and his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, co-founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Their mission is “to advance freedom through knowledge and strategic action” by combining lessons from the legacies of Douglass and Washington.
“Part of the work is to teach young people about the life and legacies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington because many of our young people don’t know who they are,” Morris said. “Many of them are familiar with their names. But if you ask them what they did, they wouldn’t be able to tell you.”
They’re working to disrupt this trend with One Million Abolitionists, an initiative honoring Douglass’ 200th birthday. In 2018 they will republish 1 million hardcover copies of the bicentennial edition of Douglass’ first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, and give them to 1 million youths around the country.
“With Douglass’ words, we’re going to challenge young people to effect change around the issues that they’re most passionate about in their communities,” Morris said.
From politics to systemic racism, lack of educational and economic opportunities and media messaging, the goal of FDFI is to inspire young people to think critically about the world around them. In this charge, Morris fully embraces Douglass’ and Washington’s fervor for driving change.
“I carry their blood and DNA with me every single day. I think about them every single day,” he said. “I imagine that they would be very proud of the work that their families are continuing in their names. And I feel like I’m being guided by their spirits, too.”
The black community and America (as well as the president, it seems) still have much to learn from Douglass’ legacy, but Morris sums it up in one word. According to Morris, before Douglass passed away at the age of 77, a young man asked him how people can continue to fight injustice.
“Frederick looked at the young man and said, ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate,’” Morris said. “And that’s exactly what he did. His life was about agitation; making sure people were not comfortable with the status quo; calling people out when they were wrong, when they were discriminating against people, when they were dehumanizing people.”