Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. (l.), shown here with US Congressman Chris Smith (Rep.) during the an OSCE side event in Luxembourg on human trafficking on 6 July 2019
“Abolition through education”: the Frederick Douglass legacy
Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., is a descendent of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington--both former slaves in 19th century America, who later advised presidents and were instrumental in championing African-American rights in the young nation. Delano caught up with him on 6 July in Kirchberg.
Morris is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. Founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initatitive--which aims to advance freedom through knowledge and strategic action--Morris participated in a discussion on educating children to avoid becoming victimised by human traffickers on 6 July in Luxembourg City, held in the context of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe parliamentary assembly.
NG: Mr. Morris, it’s truly an honour to meet you. From your own personal memories, can you tell me a bit about the stories you heard growing up about your ancestors?
KM: People will ask me, when did you find out you were related to Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and I can’t say that there was a time ever when somebody said we have to sit down, we have something important to tell you. I just always knew. I spent all of my summers at Frederick Douglass’ summer beach house on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, which was built by my great-great-grandfather, Charles, who was Frederick and Anna’s youngest son. Charles built [the] home as a retirement home for his father. And so I spent all of my summers there, looking back across the Chesapeake Bay, and on the other side you could see land, the eastern shore of Maryland, where Frederick had been born into slavery. What he wanted to do at the end of his life was to sit in a place called ‘the tower’ at the top of the house to look back across that water, to never forget where he’d come from, even though he’d been born into slavery.
I was at the foot of my great grandmother, Fannie Douglass, who was married to Frederick Douglass’ grandson, Joseph, who’s my great-grandfather, and she would tell me first-hand stories about Frederick because she met him when she was a little girl, about eight or nine years old. She lived in Atlanta and her father, my great-great-grandfather, David T. Howard, was the first black licensed mortician for the state of Georgia. He became a philanthropist and so was really well known in Atlanta and in Georgia, and so when Frederick would come to Atlanta, my great-great-grandfather, David, had the nicest horse and carriage, so they would pick him up at the train station.
Fannie was eight years old at the time, and she remembers meeting Frederick Douglass and calling him ‘the man with the great big white hair’, which she called him throughout the rest of her life. She lived to be 103.
My aunt Portia, who was Booker T. Washington’s daughter, lived to be 95. And so I sat on her lap and she would tell me first-hand stories about her father. And so even with all those greats… I can say I stand one person away from each man. And when you think about the generations, we aren’t that far removed.
Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., holding an image of his ancestor, Frederick Douglass Photo: Twitter/@kmorrisjr
We're here at this event on human trafficking. Let's talk about the parallels you see between slavery in history and today's human trafficking situation.
When you look at historic slavery and contemporary forms of slavery, and you boil down the elements, it’s really about money. It’s about exploiting the most vulnerable among us for profit.
When we started doing our work in schools in 2007 we asked, what would Frederick Douglass do if he were still here today? We believe he would still be fighting for freedom, for human rights for all; because slavery still exists, we believe he would still be an abolitionist.
So when we turned to schools, we thought, how can we get involved in this anti-trafficking movement? And we looked at the landscape, which was mostly reactionary, reacting to the crime after it was committed. Law enforcement comes in, arrests and prosecutes, reacting after the victimisation occurs, rescuing, restoring, rehabilitating that victim--which is obviously very, very important work because we’re talking about human beings--but we didn’t see anyone really doing work around education.
When we’re talking about education, we’re not talking about educating the public or awareness campaigns, we’re talking about education in the classroom.
When we looked at the legacy of Frederick Douglass as the great abolitionist and the legacy of Booker T. Washington as the great educator, we thought, aha, abolition through education…this is how we can go into communities, in the same way education was liberation for Frederick Douglass, teaching himself to read and write, and education was liberation for Booker T. Washington, and he understood when he started Tuskegee Normal School and Institute [the modern Tuskegee University] in 1881 that educating some of those 4 million enslaved Africans that were now free was very important. So our work is educating again, equalling liberation, freedom and emancipation.
Douglass was the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, believing that the world would be better off if women also had the right to vote. Can you talk about whether the role of gender plays a role in human trafficking and the responsibility of politicians, particularly in today’s climate?
Frederick Douglass said, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ It’s an important quote in our work. While we would never give up to repair broken men or broken women, we believe that if we can work with young boys at an age when they’re forming their identity and their character, and help them understand that the choices that they make as young men and adult males can feed in to the demand side of sex trafficking, it can feed in to not treating women and girls with dignity and respect, I think that long-term that’s the way to address this issue.
I’m the father of two daughters, and I would want for my girls that they be treated with dignity and respect. They are 24 and 21, and I know that they demand that as young adult women, and they don’t need their father for that because they’re very strong ladies. But we’re talking about patriarchal societies, and women and girls not being valued in many parts of the world. And so when we work on our human trafficking education, it’s not just about teaching kids the signs to help reduce their vulnerability to being trafficked, but understanding that they can be leaders, modern-day abolitionists, but particularly working with boys--and that’s really where my passion is, working with young men of colour--because when you look at what would make somebody vulnerable in communities, other social justice issues come into it, like mass incarceration, prison industrial complex, which we consider a form of modern-day slavery as well. So we’re trying to do our part in building strong children and, in particular, the strong boys. There’s a lot of work to be done.
You have some support here, it seems…
The last time I was at the OSCE conference was in 2012 in Vienna. And since our work isn’t international at this point--and that’s not to say that the education models that we’ve created in the US can’t be applicable to international education as well--but there’s still so much work to do in the US that we have our hands full.
It’s great you are bringing awareness to the issue, both today and in your work at FDFI.
And our expertise. We’ve been doing this work in K-12 schools for 13 years now, and so we do have some experience we could offer that could be helpful in other parts of the world.
Has it been a challenge getting such education into the US curricula, given the differences in state standards?
We usually have the teachers we’ve worked with help write our curriculum, and it’s typically around service learning, or…civic engagement. So, once we teach young people about the red flags to look out for, and we start with historic slavery because of my unique connection to Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, it’s a place where we can start and go into schools and kind of soften the edges of these very prickly subjects.
It’s difficult for organisations to get into a school, saying we want to come in and talk to 7th or 6th graders [Editor’s note: age 12-13] about sex trafficking or labour trafficking, but we come in starting with history, talking about the history of slavery in [the US], talking about the great heroes and heroines that came before us, and then we transition into talking about modern-day slavery, contemporary forms of slavery, and the question we would always get from students and teachers was, now that we know about this, what can we do? How do we become modern-day abolitionists? That service component to our work is very important because it really empowers young people to affect change in their schools, their communities, their churches.
The other thing that’s really important is that this is a short-term solution, but it’s also a long-term solution. We’re building children that have in their heart this passion for fighting for social justice and equality, being abolitionists and fighting human trafficking. Again, one of the biggest challenges we have when we go into a community is convincing people that this even exists, especially when we talk to superintendents of schools. They don’t believe this is happening in their schools, and that’s a challenge we won’t have when young people have this education and this passion in their hearts. They’ll hopefully go into careers, maybe be an attorney that fights for the rights of someone, or start a non-profit organisation, whatever it may be, using their passion, their talent, intellect and creativity to address this issue or whatever they’re passionate about…the broad spectrum of social justice issues.
Following his visit to Luxembourg, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., will be taking part in the Footsteps to Freedomtour, run through the Black Voice Foundation, which retraces the history of the Underground Railroad in the US, the steps of early freedom seekers from enslavement to liberty.
Visit FDFI.orgto learn more about the work Morris is leading.