A direct descendant of two former slaves who became civil rights giants, Kenneth B. Morris, told a Sacramento audience this weekend that the worldwide fight against slavery is far from over.
Morris, the great-great-great-grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a great-great-grandson of African American education advocate Booker T. Washington, gave the crowd a history lesson on how his ancestors helped set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. to carry on their legacies.
As the keynote speaker at Saturday’s 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration dinner in downtown Sacramento, Morris urged young people to not only remember the lessons of his famous ancestors, but to apply them now. The event drew 500 to the Sheraton Grand hotel.
“We need to know where we come from in order to know where we’re headed,” Morris said. “There’s nothing you cannot do in your own lives to effect change.”
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Morris said it took years for him to learn that lesson. His family steered him away from focusing on Douglass’ legacy because his grandfather, a surgeon, committed suicide, succumbing to the pressure he felt to live up to the 19th-century icon.
“I was well into my 30s before I could appreciate this blood that runs through my veins,” Morris said.
A 2005 National Geographic article shared by a friend helped trigger a change in Morris, he said. It detailed the horrors of 21st-century enslavement, including how young girls in Southeast Asia were sold into sexual slavery and forced to have sex with 25 to 30 men daily.
“Here I was faced with a present-day crime, and I couldn’t look my 12- and 9-year-old daughters in the eyes,” Morris said.
He and his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, started the nonprofit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives to raise awareness about human trafficking and slavery by teaching “history, human rights and the power of one,” Morris said. The organization has taken its message to more than 50,000 middle and high school children nationwide.
“Along with sex trafficking, they learn about labor trafficking and slavery in the supply chain,” Morris said. “Slaves in West Africa that harvest cocoa beans for chocolate, small boys forced to work up to 17 hours a day picking fish out of nets in Ghana, girls in India who sew the rugs we stand on.”
Morris said both his forebears left important messages. “Frederick Douglass said, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than fix broken men,’ and Booker T. Washington said, ‘If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.’”
Douglass, called the father of the civil rights movement, was born to a black woman and her white master, Morris said. At 9, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his slave master began to teach him his ABCs until her husband put a stop to it, saying teaching slaves to read would make them unruly.
“It was then that Frederick understood that education was going to be his key to freedom and taught himself how to read and write,” Morris said. “The overseer threw corn meal mush into a pig trough so the little black kids would crawl on their hands and knees and eat like pigs.” But Douglass would trade pieces of bread for reading lessons.
Morris said that after being whipped so badly the welts on his back wouldn’t heal, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and fled to Massachusetts. He ultimately became a leading black anti-slavery advocate and an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass was one of the first public figures to speak out for women’s rights and suffrage, Morris said.
Morris also shared his knowledge about Washington, the son of slave woman and a white man. Washington eventually was freed and at 16 worked in the salt and coal mines of West Virginia, Morris said. When he heard of Hampton, a black college in Virginia, he walked 500 miles to get in but was rejected because of his ragged appearance. “But he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Morris said, and he worked as a janitor there while attending school.
After the Civil War, Washington, then 25, went to Alabama and started Tuskegee University. “He taught the students how to make their own bricks and build their own school,” Morris said.
Douglass’ great-grandson, Dr. Frederick Douglass III, met Washington’s granddaughter, Nettie Hancock Washington, “when they literally bumped into each other at Tuskegee University, fell in love, married three months later and gave birth to my mother,” Morris said, explaining his remarkable lineage.
“My great-grandmother Fanny Douglass, who lived to 103, met Frederick Douglass,” said Morris, “and my Aunt Portia Washington Pittman was Booker T. Washington’s daughter. So the hands that touched these great men also touched mine.”
Morris said he grew up in Fredrick Douglass’ retirement home in Annapolis, Md., across the Chesapeake Bay. “When I saw his portrait at age 5, I said, ‘Man, you look mean!’” Morris said. “When I walked by it, his eyes would follow me, and I could feel his steely glare burning like fire on the back of my neck.”
Morris said he thought he heard a voice saying, “You will do great things, young man.”
For more information on Morris and the Frederick Douglas Family Initiatives, go to www.fdfi.org.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.