WASHINGTON Kenneth Morris Jr. is the possessor of a towering legacy.
The great-great-great-grandson of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, the pioneering African American educator, he said it has taken him many years to figure out to handle so much historical weight.
“I wanted nothing to do with living up to expectations,” said the 50-year-old Morris.
His mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, is the offspring of the marriage of Douglass’ great-grandson and Washington’s granddaughter.
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“I just found that I never talked about it,” Morris said, especially after classmates in school didn’t believe him.
But in 2005, he had an epiphany after reading a National Geographic article about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. So he gave up a successful career in southern California working in advertising and marketing for the travel industry to focus on the issue that had consumed his ancestors.
“Millions of people around the world are living in conditions my ancestors endured,” he said. “Especially with this incredible lineage I have, I could stand up and do something.”
Morris set out on a mission: to raise awareness among at-risk youth vulnerable to sex-slave trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, every year nearly 300,000 young people in the U.S. “are at risk of being sexually exploited for commercial uses.”
With his mother and an associate, Morris formed the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, which has concentrated on working on the issue with schools.
In 2008, he decided to speak at schools named for either Douglass or Washington and appeared at 45 middle and high schools in 30 days.
“I talk about the history of slavery and abolitionists and how both Douglass and Washington were born slaves, but benefited from the power of education,” he said.
In January he was the keynote speaker at a Washington rally at the Lincoln Memorial to pray for modern emancipation.
Douglass was a writer and orator who influenced President Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery views. Washington was a leader of the African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a pivotal figure at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute – now Tuskegee University – one of the first black institutions of higher learning.
The Atlanta-based Douglass Family Foundation began service learning projects – required for high school graduation in some states – at the high school level, to educate students about the warning signs of sex trafficking and slavery.
A modern-day anti-slavery program will become part of the curriculum in New York City at-risk schools as part of a new agreement between the city and Morris’ foundation, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
Morris said the objective is to identify, prevent and combat the problem of human trafficking.
“I set up my ancestors as tangible examples of people who went on to affect the lives of others,” he said.