White House convening of descendants was years in the making, says multi-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington

“Let's keep this history alive, especially in the face of those who would attempt to edit it out," Vice President Kamala Harris said during a surprise appearance at the historic gathering.

Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an event with descendants of iconic civil rights leaders to celebrate Black History Month in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Stephen Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement, also appears. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Dozens of descendants and families of prominent Black civil rights leaders and historical figures gathered at the White House on Tuesday for a historic convening for Black History Month, fulfilling a plan set in motion nearly 20 years ago. 

“It’s been really wonderful,” Kenneth B. Morris Jr., standing outside the West Wing, said of the gathering he helped organize.  

Morris, a multi-great grandson of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, and more than two dozen other descendants and family members of historical Black luminaries and leaders had come together for the first time at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. 

Invitees in attendance included the descendants and families of Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Sally Hemings, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. 

Attendees, joined by members of Congress and Biden-Harris administration officials, were briefly greeted by Vice President Kamala Harris, a Black history figure herself.

America’s first Black vice president praised the descendants’ ancestors, whom she described as “extraordinary American heroes” who “believed in the promise of America” and had a “level of faith and sincere belief in the words written in the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Harris said that as leaders, “We owe them a great sense in terms of duty and responsibility and obligation to continue to carry on their legacy through our deeds…our words and our actions.”

Morris told theGrio the event came to be after he and his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, talked about the idea of gathering other descendants of historical Black luminaries to “leverage” the platform “afforded to us by the struggle and sacrifice of our ancestors to work on issues that we were passionate about.”

Morris, who organized the assemblage and worked with the White House Office of Public Engagement to launch the first-of-its-kind meeting, told theGrio the drop-in from the vice president came as a complete surprise to him. 

“Madam Vice President’s remarks today were powerful,” he said. “She clearly was speaking from her heart.”

He continued, “She really recognized just how meaningful it is for the descendants to come together and continue our legacies, to continue to teach, continue to fight, continue to inspire.”

In 2007, Morris and his mother founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an abolitionist and anti-racist nonprofit organization dedicated to combating systems of oppression. 

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the multi-great grandson of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, convened other descendants of historical Black figures at the White House. (Photo by TheGrio/Gerren Keith Gaynor)

At the time, the mother-and-son duo talked about the idea of gathering other descendants of historical Black luminaries to maximize their social and political power. However, they were unable to pull it off due to a lack of resources. Ten years later, Morris and Washington Douglass connected with Joshua Jordison, who helped coordinate the eventual gathering behind the scenes that was initially derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Tuesday was the culmination of that work, bringing together prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including its chairman, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Lucy McBath, D-Ga., Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., Jonathan Jackson, D-Ill., Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and Troy Carter, D-La.

Horsford, who also delivered remarks at the White House event, said in a statement to theGrio that it was important for leaders to “honor this group of individuals for their continued efforts to realize the dreams of their ancestors and make our country a better place for generations to come.”

“The CBC applauds President Biden and Vice President Harris for convening today’s historic Descendants Day event at the White House,” he continued, “and we look forward to continuing our work in Congress dismantling barriers and creating opportunities in pursuit of a future worthy of their ancestors’ struggles.”

Stephen Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, used his time welcoming the descendants to go down a list of accomplishments the administration has achieved to advance racial equity and opportunity for Black Americans.

Those actions included making Juneteenth the first federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, establishing a national monument for Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley, and selecting a presidential cabinet with a historic number of Black appointments. 

Benjamin also highlighted the record-low Black unemployment rate, a 60% growth in Black wealth, and the fastest creation of Black-owned businesses in more than 30 years during the Biden-Harris administration.

Stephen Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement (right), welcomed descendants of Black historical figures to the White House on Tuesday. Above, Benjamin is shown at an August 2023 press briefing next to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

However, the convening of descendants of historical Black figures came amid a crescendo moment for race in America, as legal challenges mount against diversity, equity, and inclusion programs following the overturning of affirmative action in college admissions, and as school districts ban books written by prominent Black writers and alter the way Black history is taught in classrooms. 

“There’s so much that is happening in our country and in the world right now that I think challenges us all to ask, ‘What kind of country do we want to live in?’” said Harris during her remarks. “Let’s keep this history alive, especially in the face of those who would attempt to edit it out or rewrite it according to their view of what the world is or should be.”

Morris told theGrio that if his ancestors Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were alive today, they would be “upset” by the attempts to roll back equity initiatives and the teaching of Black history. 

“They would continue to agitate. They would speak truth to power,” he proclaimed. 

Morris referenced a quote from Douglass, “Without struggle, there is no progress,” adding, “In this country, we’re in the midst of a mighty struggle, and there’s still a lot of work to do.”

“We as descendants have, I believe, an obligation by birthright to continue the fight for freedom, equality, and justice,” he continued. “We hope that by coming together as a collaborative…we can inspire others to want to effect change in their own communities.”

Morris said all Americans, especially Black Americans, “all descend from somebody that made a difference.”

Closing her remarks on Tuesday, Harris told attendees that she sees history in the context of a relay race – one in which living generations must keep going.

“There are those who carried the baton before us and then they passed the baton to us,” said the vice president. 

“I do believe that they didn’t necessarily think that we would end the race, but charged us with the responsibility to do as much and as best as we could while we carry for our part of the race.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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