Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T.… (Stephen James Collins Photography/STEPHEN…)
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.
Finding his passion
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.
Read the full Washington Post Civil War 150 series.
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.