Descendant of famous African American leaders talks ‘21st-century slavery’
Published: Monday, January 16, 2012
Updated: Monday, January 16, 2012 22:01
When the West Virginia University Center for Black Culture & Research hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Friday, they wanted to feature leaders who exemplified King's legacy of pursuing justice.
For Kenneth Morris, "living the legacy" is something with which he can truly resonate.
Morris served as the keynote speaker at the annual commemoration and is a descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington – two leaders who overcame great oppression to fight for change.
As the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and the great-great grandson of Washington, Morris shared stories of being a young boy and sitting on the laps of family members who had the opportunity to meet both men.
"I thought to myself that the hands that touched the great Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington also touched mine," he said. "And then I realized we're not that far removed from our history."
For many years, however, Morris said he didn't feel closely connected with the work of his ancestors.
He had started his own business and believed Douglass and Washington's work only held truth in issues of the past.
"I truly live in the shadows of these great people, and I took it for granted," Morris said.
However, things took a turn in Morris' life four years ago when a friend handed him a copy of National Geographic, which featured an article entitled "21st Century Slavery."
Morris said he was shocked to learn there are nearly 27 million slaves in the world today, many of whom face conditions just as brutal as his ancestors did many years ago.
"I remember sitting in my living room reading about a young girl forced to service 30 to 45 men a day. As I was reading, I could hear my daughters laughing in their bedroom as my wife put them to bed," he said. "I thought to myself, ‘This is what young girls are supposed to be doing.' I went into their room and I couldn't even look them in the eyes."
At that moment, the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation was born.
As the foundation's president, Morris now travels to schools across the country to carry out the organization's mission of "Abolition through Education."
Morris speaks on the issues of human trafficking and the various forms of modern-day slavery and said he hopes to empower children to make a difference through service learning projects.
"We live in modern times, and the echoes of slavery are too far to hear, but if we listen closely we will hear the cries of slavery today," he said. "When we listen close enough – that's when change will happen."
Once, while speaking at an elementary school, Morris said a young girl asked him how he could possibly fill the shoes of such great ancestors.
Astounded by the young girl's question, he found himself unable to answer her.
Later that day, Morris took part in a tour of Washington's home.
While posing for a picture in Washington's bedroom during the tour, Morris found himself standing directly next to a pair of Washington's shoes.
Morris said he contemplated slipping on the shoes, but something stopped him.
"I realized that those shoes are too big to fill; I can't stand in them," he said. "But, I can take the shoes that I've got – and you all can take the shoes that you've got – and together we can lead the way to a brighter future."
WVU freshman Maggie Steel said she left the event feeling inspired by Morris' efforts and the change he desires to bring about in the world.
"It's really inspirational to know that I am able to do something and that I have the power to make a difference in the world," Steel said. "One person truly can make a difference."