This article first appeared on The OBSV Group Website
By Kenneth B. Morris, Jr.
I can’t say when I first realized I was related to Frederick Douglass. There was never a time that I can recall when my parents or grandparents sat me down and said we have something important to tell you about your ancestry. I’ve just always known. I remember being about five or six when I started to notice my ancestor’s likeness on statues and patina-stained busts. His face was emblazoned on money and postage stamps. There were schools, bridges, and buildings named for him. I would ask my friends and classmates if their grandparents were on statues.
If the honor of being a descendant of one great American wasn’t enough weight to carry, I also have the distinction of being a descendant of formerly enslaved person and educator Booker T. Washington. This extraordinary lineage flows through my family’s maternal side through the union of my grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington (granddaughter of Booker T. Washington), and my grandfather, Dr. Frederick Douglass III (great-grandson of Frederick Douglass). When my mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, was born, she united the bloodlines of these historic families. My mother is an only child, so I have the honor and privilege of being the first male in the family to carry this dual lineage.
These historical roots make me the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. My name is Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. I’m a Co-Founder and President of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), an abolitionist and antiracist Rochester, NY, based non-profit organization with a mission to build strong children and to end systems of exploitation and oppression.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland sometime in 1818. He was birthed by an enslaved woman and was the property of a white man. It was presumed his enslaver was his father, although he never knew for sure. He changed his name to Douglass after escaping his bondage at twenty to elude re-enslavement.
Following his self-emancipation in 1838, Frederick Douglass became one of the most celebrated intellectuals of his time; he advised presidents and spoke worldwide on various issues, including the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. He gained notoriety for his brilliant oratory and incisive antislavery writings. He was a best-selling author, a journalist, and the first African American to hold a high U.S. government rank as Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856. He was freed at the age of nine when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Desiring a formal education, a sixteen-year-old Booker Taliaferro Washington walked 500 miles to attend school at Hampton Institute in Virginia. He would graduate four years later and accept a teaching position there in 1879.
In 1881, at twenty-five, he founded Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, AL, to provide an industrial education to formerly enslaved people. He was an educator, orator, best-selling author, and adviser to presidents. Washington is probably best remembered as a leader who brought stability in a time of transition from enslavement to freedom, and it may be said that he is the person that bridged the gap between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Movement.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, has transformed the lives of countless people worldwide since it was first published in 1845. Throughout my life, people of all ages have approached me, many times with tears in their eyes, to share stories about the first time they were introduced to the life and legacy of my great-great-great-grandfather. They tell me how my ancestor’s struggle to overcome and rise from slavery, against all odds, inspired them to believe that they could be—and do—more than they ever dreamed possible. His words penetrated their psyche so profoundly that they always remember how old they were and where they were when they first read the Narrative. Deep in my soul and spirit, I’ve known since childhood how my ancestor’s inspirational coming-of-age story positively impacts and changes lives.
I was shocked but not surprised to read recently that Edmund Public Schools in Oklahoma had banned Frederick Douglass’s Narrative from libraries and classrooms. Conservative-driven book bans about race, gender, and inequality are spreading across the country in a concerted effort to whitewash our nation’s history and prevent young people from learning the truth about the atrocities committed against Native Americans and people of African descent. According to the non-profit PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, several notable literary books have been listed as banned or banned pending investigation in school districts in at least ten States.
I am incensed that so many young people will be denied the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by my great ancestor’s story and the other narratives of freedom fighters who shaped this nation’s history. The banning of books is a denial of First Amendment rights. It hinders dialogue in the classroom, discourages freedom of thought, and undermines students’ ability to think critically. Critical thinking and self-reflection are essential for fostering empathy, tolerance, social equality, and acceptance of other people and cultures. Books about race and racism, human rights, activism, LGBTQ+ themes, and historic biographies help students imagine worlds and experiences that are new to them and unlike their own.
The reprehensible history of sanitizing our past is dangerous and continues to threaten our freedom and democracy. We have seen throughout history how ignorance spawned out of denial and misinformation manifests in racist policing tactics and policies, a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes and incarcerates Black and Brown people, and in thinly veiled election integrity laws designed to disenfranchise minority and poor voters. Many Americans take it as sacrosanct that our commitment to national security, civic governance, and justice makes our institutions impervious to those forces that would undermine the values that uphold our nation and American society.
I do not doubt that my ancestors would be outraged and outspoken about the banning of books and the challenges we still face today. However, I also believe they would find hope in young people’s activism and encourage peaceful and determined agitation for change. They would hold firm in the optimism that the idealized version of America is achievable.
Facing the headwinds of an organized reactionary movement bent on reasserting white supremacy and whitewashed American myths, here are two FDFI initiatives designed to teach students about the true history of America and empower them to be changemakers in the mold of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and all freedom fighters whose shoulders we stand upon:
In honor of Frederick Douglass’s 200th birthday, FDFI published a Bicentennial Edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Through our One Million Abolitionists project, we aim to print and distribute one million hardcover copies of this special edition to students across the country and internationally. FDFI wants to inspire and empower one million young people to do and be more than they ever dreamed possible. We have distributed more than one hundred thousand books to date in schools, civic organizations, churches, salons, and other locations where young people gather outside the reach of conservative hysteria. We are far from reaching our goal of distributing one million copies; however, we will get there with the help and generosity of corporate and foundation grants, individual contributions, and gifts from concerned Americans like you.
Frederick Douglass Books
On June 9, my birthday, and the anniversary of the first statue dedicated to an African American (Douglass in Rochester, NY) in 1899, FDFI partnered with Forefront Books on a new joint publishing imprint to be distributed by Simon and Schuster. The Frederick Douglass Books publishing imprint is an effort to establish a pathway for Black and Brown authors to write and publish a professional book with distribution into traditional retailers.
Frederick Douglass understood the vital importance of telling his story and amplifying the voices of enslaved and oppressed peoples. His North Star abolitionist newspaper and best-selling autobiographies helped nurture a revolution to end slavery in the United States. It is my hope that the Frederick Douglass Books imprint will carry on his legacy of education, activism, and liberation commentary and provide a platform for Black and Brown authors to publish their own narratives.
My great ancestor’s newspaper and the thousands of essays and articles he wrote provided a megaphone for people living in bondage in the 19th Century. The struggle for freedom, justice, and equality continues today. We need to empower the next generation of freedom fighters to address these critical issues and the ills facing society now and in the future. We can do this by leveraging our networks and platforms and providing creative opportunities to amplify Black and Brown voices.
We walk in the shoes of those who came before us. Like my ancestors before me, whose blood flows through my veins, I have faith in our institutions and each individual’s ability to reclaim understanding and confidence in upholding American values and ideals. We must be stewards of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We must join in the fight to defend American principles and peacefully agitate for a better world for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
For it was Douglass who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Let’s commit to truth-telling, fighting for freedom, justice, and equality, and to building strong children.
Kenneth B. Morris, Jr.
Co-Founder & President, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives