From the time he was a very young child, the portrait made Kenneth B. Morris Jr. uncomfortable. The piercing eyes of the handsome African American man with the shock of gray hair that hung over the staircase of his great-grandmother’s Capitol Hill townhouse seemed to follow him.
“It was as if I could hear this voice booming down on me saying, ‘You will do great things, young man!’ ” Morris said.
He was 5 before he knew that the man in the painting, Frederick Douglass, was his great-great-great-grandfather and he was grown before he realized the significance of the legacy he had inherited from the great abolitionist and orator. If being a male descendant of one of the most respected men in American history had been be daunting, Morris would have faced twice the challenge. He is also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, the illustrious black educator and statesman.
“I never found it intimidating because, when I was younger, I was so far removed from it,” said Morris, 50, of Corona, Calif., a public speaker who teaches a course in “liberation theology” at the University of La Verne near Los Angeles. He spent much of his adult life as an entrepreneur, specializing in travel and entertainment marketing. “I was able to go about my life and not even think about it, really.”
But then he read a magazine story that lit the fire that had lain dormant in him for 45 years. It set him on a course that would link him to his famous forefathers’ work and make him a part of their legacies.
Morris came to know his famed ancestors through their images. There was the portrait of Douglass and there were photos of Washington.
“My grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington, Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter, lived on Massachusetts Avenue in Bethesda, and I spent a lot of time with her,” he said. “There were all types of pictures of him at her house, but I was much older when I really started to take a look at who he was.”
The Douglass connection also was forged through time he spent at his great-great-great-grandfather’s summer home in Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay.
“From the front yard, you looked out at the Chesapeake Bay. Across the bay, you could see land on the other side. That land was the Eastern Shore, where [Frederick Douglass] was born,” Morris said.
Born in Washington in 1962, Morris was the oldest of three children of Nettie Washington Douglass III and Kenneth B. Morris Sr., an insurance broker.
Though he didn’t make an issue of it, people found it incredible when Morris told them he was related to the two famous men. He was called a liar more than once — by students and teachers. “As a child, when somebody doesn’t believe you, you stop talking about it,” he said.
He was a good student and athlete and lettered in football and track in high school. After a few years at California State University at Fullerton, he left to travel the world. He also worked as a singer, performing and touring with the international music outreach group the Young Americans. Once he was the star singer and dancer in a performance with Liberace.
He was just Kenny Morris, and he made no fuss about his heritage.
“I just didn’t know that much about it,” he said. “I remember being in high school history classes and we’d get to chapters on Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, and I didn’t know exactly what they had done. I remember those chapters being very short.”
It was his mother who taught him about his lineage. Frederick Douglass, she told him, was born a slave, escaped to freedom in the North and was still so hunted that he headed to Europe to remain free. He lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to fight in the Civil War. He wrote prolifically — his book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is on almost every student reading list. He is considered one of the best orators in the history of the spoken word.
Booker T. Washington, the “Wizard of Tuskegee,” also was born a slave but was freed at age 9 with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a great champion of education and so impressive as a teacher and leader that he was tapped at age 25 to head the Alabama teaching college that would become Tuskegee University. He was the first African American to dine at the White House; another would not follow for 30 years. He drew fire from some other prominent blacks of his day for his stand that segregation was acceptable if blacks could excel in their own communities. His book, “Up From Slavery,” was a bestseller for decades.
His mother also told him about her parents, descendants of the two great men. Her father, Frederick Douglass III, a surgeon, had met her mother, Nettie Hancock Washington, walking across the campus at then-Tuskegee Institute one day in 1941.
“It was love at first sight,” Nettie Washington Douglass III told Morris and his siblings. “They got married three months later.”
They were happy, but his lineage always weighed heavily on Frederick Douglass III, Morris learned. His grandfather took his own life while his wife was pregnant with Morris’s mother.
“People were always comparing him and asking what he was going to do,” Morris said. “He was a brilliant man, but he just couldn’t handle the weight of the expectations.”
What happened to the father she never knew made Nettie Washington Douglass III cautious about her own children. She never compared them to their forefathers or led them to think she had expectations. Though she spoke at black history events and they accompanied her to openings and dedications of structures named for Douglass and Washington, his family was “pretty low key” about their lineage, Morris said.
Their lack of a place on the national stage, however, provided an opportunity for imposters to step in. At least twice a year, they are alerted that someone is committing fraud in Douglass’s name.
A few years ago, he and his family were successful in exposing a Maryland man, Frederick I. Douglas Jr., who traveled the nation for 20 years performing as Frederick Douglass and pretending to be his great-great-grandson.
“It was out-and-out fraud,” Morris said. “Both of these men are heroes and prominent, so a lot of people named their kids for them. You will have Frederick Douglass Joneses and Booker T. Washington Smiths. Some people just took advantage of that.”
The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at Douglass’s last home, Cedar Hill in Anacostia, holds the records of the orator’s descendants. After the births of his two daughters, Jenna, now 17, and Nicole, 14, Morris and his wife of 28 years, Diana, provided documentation to show the link.
Morris had recently returned from a trip to Washington to attend a birthday celebration at Cedar Hill when a close friend, Robert Benz, showed him the magazine that changed his life. “It was a National Geographic and the cover story was called ‘21st Century Slaves,’ ” Morris said. “I looked at the headline and was shocked. I thought slavery had ended with the work of Frederick Douglass and the Emancipation Proclamation.”
He started to do his own research and was deeply disturbed by what he found. Human beings were being bought and sold all over the world. Girls his daughters’ ages were being sexually exploited.
“I was reading one night as Diana was putting the girls to bed. They were 12 and 9 at the time,” he said. “I heard them laughing . . . I went into the room, and I wasn’t able to look them in their eyes. I realized that I had this platform that my ancestors had built through struggle and through sacrifice. I knew I could stand up and do something about this crime.”
Like Frederick Douglass, he would work to abolish slavery. Like Booker T. Washington, he would use education to forge a solution to a problem.
Finally, the link was made that had eluded him his entire life.
The last words of wisdom imparted by Douglass, according to many historical accounts, were “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Depending on who told the story, 77-year-old Douglass uttered the words on the day he died to a boy who asked advice on how he should live his life or to a group of suffragettes he addressed before returning to Cedar Hill and having a heart attack on Feb. 20, 1895.
The words are considered Douglass’s rallying cry.
In 2007, his great-great-great-grandson took up the challenge by co-founding the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation with Benz to “create awareness about modern-day slavery in an effort to expedite its demise.” Last week, the foundation, based in Atlanta, launched a national human-trafficking education program to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation called “100 Days to Freedom.”
“The foundation has partnered with 10 schools across the country and the students have been asked to collaborate on creating a new proclamation of freedom addressing today’s slavery,” said Morris, who donates his time to the group. At the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the organization will also work with the New York City public schools this fall.
The education program’s credo is “Abolition Through Education.” Its goal: “To agitate for change,” Morris said.
As did Douglass and Washington.
“I appreciate this ancestry now,” Morris said. “I wake up each day and pinch myself and wonder why I was chosen by God to have this incredible lineage. I feel blessed that I do because it allows me to do the work that I do. The blood of two of the greatest heroes of this country is running through my veins. I feel like my ancestors would be very proud and feel very connected to what we are doing. They guide me every day in what I do.”
Avis Thomas-Lester is executive editor of the AFRO-American Newspapers.