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.