How’s this for Black heritage? Kenneth B. Morris is the great-great-great grandson of legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of historic educator Booker T. Washington. Talk about dynamic genes. . .
Interestingly enough, it took Morris some time to understand the power of his bloodlines. “I was well into my 30s before I could appreciate this blood that runs through my veins,” Morris said.
But when he did, Morris reacted aggressively. 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 across the country.
Morris said he is concerned that slavery still exists in parts of the world, and that is part of the nonprofit’s teachings.
“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 understands and is proud that he stands on the shoulders of two remarkable ancestors. This is how it came to be that he is related to two of Black history’s iconic figures: Frederick Douglass’ great-grandson, Dr. Frederick Douglass III, met Washington’s granddaughter, Nettie Hancock Washington. “They literally bumped into each other at Tuskegee University,” Morris said. Soon, they “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. “When I saw his portrait at age 5, I said, ‘Man, you look mean!’” he recounted. “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.”
But he shunned his ties to greatness for much of his life because his grandfather, a surgeon, committed suicide over the pressure to live up to Douglass’ legacy. It was not until a friend shared a 2005 article in National Geographic about the horrors of present-day enslavement that Morris embraced his call to help others, as his historic relatives had.
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.
Messages from his forebears were significant, Morris acknowledged.
He said, “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.’”