For Black History Month, theGrio decided to track down the descendants of well-known African-American historical figures to find out what it is like being descended from some of most the influential people in American history. Here is what Kenneth Morris, the great-great-great grandson and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, had to say about the joys and burdens of bearing two famous ancestors’ legacies.
Booker T. Washington is known as one of the most influential black educators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frederick Douglass was a leader of the abolitionist movement who fought to end slavery in the southern United States, decades before the Civil War.
Kenneth Morris, 50, happens to be the descendant of two very famous historical figures, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. The two families’ bloodlines were united when Nettie Hancock Washington (granddaughter of Booker T. Washington) and Frederick Douglass III (great-grandson of Frederick Douglass) married and gave birth to Morris’ mother, Nettie Washington Douglass. Morris says he has the honor to be the first male to be descended from both Washington and Douglass.
How did you find out you were related to them?
Kenneth Morris: I’ve always known since I was little boy. I spent many summers on Frederick Douglass summer beach home in Chesapeake Bay, which was built for him to retire in. I remember sitting on the lap of my great grandmother, Fannie Douglass, who actually met Frederick Douglass when she was little girl. She could tell me firsthand stories because she lived to be 103 years old. And I also remember sitting on my aunt Portia’s lap, who was to be Booker T. Washington’s daughter and she would tell me stories about her father.
Even though all those of the greats I laid out, which is a mouthful, I’m really one person removed from both of these men. I’ve always known through my whole life [about their legacies]. This is something that was all around me from the time I can remember probably as young four or five years old.
What is something people don’t know about Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass?
If I was to point something out, [it would be] that Frederick Douglass was a great family man and he loved his children and he had 21 grandchildren. He used to let his granddaughters braid his ‘big white hair’ as we call it in the family. If you imagine these pictures of him with this big white mane of hair and that his granddaughters would sit around braiding his hair, that’s pretty full.
Booker T. Washington — he was so committed to Tuskegee and raising money and fundraising that he was always on the road and he was not home with the family as much. He was little bit tougher on his [two] sons.
Both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington belong to America. So much about their lives that are in the public domain and there are family stories that we choose to keep private so we can have these stories about them and have something that we can hold on to ourselves.
Is being their ancestor a burden or an inspiration?
There was a lot of pressure that was put on the males in the family to be the next Frederick Douglass or the next Booker T. Washington. Those who came before me, the pressure for some was too much to bear.
My grandfather, Frederick Douglass III. He was a brilliant surgeon, but he’d always had this weight of expectation on his shoulders. He lived in the shadow of [Frederick Douglass] – I mean he was the namesake of one of this country’s greatest heroes. But there’s a tragic side. When my grandmother was three months [pregnant] with my mom, the weight of expectation was too much for him to endure, so he took his own life. My mom was born without a father and raised without a father.
When I came along, I had this dual lineage. My parents and grandparents weren’t going to force anything on me. I grew up not caring about this history for that reason.
Also, the few times I told people about [my dual lineage] when I was younger, nobody ever believed me and as a young person, you never wanted that embarrassment. I spent most of my young life and I’m embarrassed to say, but I was well into my forties before I really started to appreciate the significance of this blood that runs through my veins.
How are you or your family keeping to Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass’ legacies alive?
I have the blessing to be related to probably two of this country’s greatest heroes. Not just African-American heroes, but American heroes. I think [about that] to myself every day.
My mother and I, Nettie Washington Douglass, founded the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation and we have a twofold mission. The first – the obvious to carry on the legacies of both of our great ancestors. The second part of the mission is to raise awareness about human trafficking and today’s modern day slavery [because] slavery did not end with the work of Frederick Douglass and abolitionists and the signing of [the] Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery still occurs all around the world, really in all civilized and uncivilized countries including right here in the United States.
I couldn’t look my girls in the eyes and just walk away without doing something about this and especially if I have a platform of my ancestors that have built through struggle through sacrifice. I knew I could use that and leverage the historical significance of my ancestry and stand up. That’s the reason we started the foundation and the mission found me. I think because I founded [the mission] on my own and it wasn’t forced on me, it’s much more meaningful.
We’re carrying on the legacies of both men, Frederick Douglass being the great abolitionist and Booker T. Washington being the great educator. Our mantra is abolition through education and so we’re carrying on the legacy by working with young people.
How would you hope to Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass would be remembered today?
The legacies — that’s most important and the reason we’re still talking about them today. A young person may be facing a challenges and obstacles in their own lives that they feel [are] insurmountable to overcome. Booker T. Washington [and Frederick Douglass] were born slaves. It doesn’t get any worse than that. They were born [in] the most horrific conditions that any human being can be subjected to.
But, they were able to go on and effect important change in our country. A young person [today] can look at those legacies and say, “I can do the same thing. I can overcome any challenge that I face in my life.” That’s what I hope they will be remembered for.
To read more profiles from The Descendants Project, click here.
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