Celebration of 160th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation Watch Event

His hands have touched the hands that have touched Frederick Douglass. Kenneth B. Morris Jr.  is just one person removed from slavery and from the force of character that overcame that state of wretchedness to achieve greatness.

Morris descends from two of the most influential names in American history: he is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. On New Year’s Eve, this modern-day freedom fighter, with an incredible lineage, was keynote speaker for the 160th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation Watch Event, presented by the Kujichagulia-Madison Center for Self Determination.

“We live in modern times and the echoes of slavery are hard to hear from where we stand,” said Morris via Zoom at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.  “But if we all listen close enough, we hear cries and echoes from the slaves of today.”

 Annie Weatherby Flowers, a stalwart of Madison’s Black community, organized the Dec. 31 event through her Kujichagulia organization. Watch Night, also known as Freedom’s Eve, gained significance among African Americans 160 years ago, when, according to tradition, slaves in the Confederate states gathered in churches and private homes on the night before U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was expected to go into effect. 

Douglass was a consultant to Lincoln. He lobbied to have enslaved Blacks serve in the Union forces, adding that the abolition of slavery should be a goal of the war.

“Fredrick Douglass himself stayed and prayed with abolitionists as they waited for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation,” Weatherby Flowers said. “And as we know, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863. But, for two-and-a-half years, Black people who were slaves in the southern region of this country, were unaware of their freedom.”

Carry The Torch Forward

Morris carries forward the civil rights torch his famed ancestors lit. He embraced his heritage by founding Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an abolitionist organization that uses lessons from history to combat modern day slavery. 

 He reminded those at Fountain of Life that education is the pathway to freedom and knowing one’s own history serves as a window into one’s future.

“I truly believe that our young people who are in trouble, who feel that they don’t have any hope, if they knew that they descended from great people that made a difference; that they descend from people that fought and died just for their right to sit in classroom and get an education; and, that they stand on the shoulders of those that came before them;  I truly believe they would have more respect for themselves.” Morris said. “They’d have more respect for their peers.  And, they’d certainly wouldn’t be disrespecting those that came before them.”

His extraordinary lineage flows through the maternal side of his family by way of the union of his grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington (granddaughter of Booker T. Washington), and his grandfather, Dr. Frederick Douglass III (great grandson of Frederick Douglass). When Morris’ mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, was born she was the first to unite the bloodlines. Morris is the first male to do so.

“I remember being a little boy and sitting on my great grandmother’s lap,” Morris said of Fannie Douglass who lived to 103. “She would tell me what it was like to know, as she would call him, the man with ‘the great big white hair’. And I remember sitting on my aunt Portia’s lap and she would tell me firsthand stories about her father Booker T. Washington.” 

“When I stopped to think about the hands that actually touched the great Frederick Douglass and hands that touched the great Booker T. Washington … They also touched mine. We’re all not that far removed from our history,” he added.

How are you also related to Booker T. Washington?

The question is inevitable, Morris said, since Washington and Douglass are not related.

“My grandfather Frederick Douglass III was Frederick Douglass’ great, great, great grandson,” said Morris. “My grandmother, Nettie Washington Douglass, was Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter. The two of them met at Tuskegee University in 1940. They were walking across campus, and they literally bumped into each. It was love at first sight and they were married three months later. … And when my mom was born, she was the first person to unite the bloodlines of these two historical families.”

Today, Morris’ career and life path have been driven by a clear focus on his family initiative’s mission, “To build strong children and to end systems of exploitation and oppression.”

“History lives in each of us,” said Morris, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University of La Verne in California. “It doesn’t just live in me … Yes, history lives in each of us, but the future depends on how we carry that forth.  My question to you is what will your great, great, great-grandchildren say about you, or all of us, in this moment and time? Will we be on the right side of history, or the wrong side of history?”  

To learn more about Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, visit fdfi.org.