Florida Keys News
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Douglass descendant: Slavery not history

Kenneth Morris, Jr., a descendant of two legends -- abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass and educator Booker T. Washington -- takes a hands-on approach when introducing himself to school kids.

Morris, who since 2007 has been an outspoken lecturer on the history of American slavery and an advocate for preventing labor slavery and the global sex trade, extends his hand to a student while imparting a piece of information.

"These are the hands that touched the hands that touched Frederick Douglass," Morris tells them, bringing into public schools a curriculum aimed at preventing modern-day slavery in the forms of laborers and child prostitutes.

"It's like we're so far removed and thinking slavery happened so long ago," said Morris. "Then we start talking about the history of slavery and we transition into the human rights issue that slavery still exists and we need to do something about it today."

Middle and high school students can at least learn about the subject so they might spot signs of someone in trouble, Morris said, adding that awareness is key to prevention.

Morris is scheduled to speak at 6 p.m. tonight at the Florida Keys Community College library on Stock Island.

On Sunday, he delivered a lecture called, "History, Human Rights and the Power of One" at the Douglass Gym in Bahama Village.

Morris, 51, who lives in Southern California, is the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and the great-great grandson of Washington. An adjunct professor at the University of La Verne in La Verne, Calif., about 35 miles outside Los Angeles, Morris is president and founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives program that provides a curriculum on the history of slavery.

New York City's public schools have approved his agency's program, said Morris, who is in Key West this week for speaking engagements and as the guest of the nonprofit Keys Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

"I spent most of my life running away from this," said Morris on Monday, while visiting for the first time the African Cemetery and Memorial at Higgs Beach. Buried at the site are the remains of 295 Africans who were captured by slavers in 1860 and loaded as cargo onto slave ships bound for the sugar plantations in Cuba. The slave ships were intercepted and the nearly 1,500 captives were brought to Key West before being returned to Africa. While here, 295 Africans died as a result of conditions aboard the slave ships.

"There was pressure on the family's men to be the next Frederick Douglass," Morris said at the site.

He worked in the music industry and other business ventures until a National Geographic story on the sex trade stopped him dead in his tracks.

"The headline was '21st Century Slavery,'" Morris recalled, having read the 2003 story about the trafficking of young girls and women for sex in 2007.

"It really hit me squarely between the eyes," said Morris, whose daughters at the time were 12 and 9, the age at which girls are abducted or lured into the clutches of people selling them for sex.

"I couldn't look my girls in the eyes and walk away and do nothing," Morris said Monday. "It all came together. I realized I had a platform my ancestors had built and I could do something about this."

At the oceanside cemetery Monday afternoon, Morris met with Corey Malcom, director of archaeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, 200 Greene St.

Malcom spearheaded the research team that identified and commemorated the African memorial at Higgs Beach, and also excavated the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, an English merchant-slaver that sank in 1700, 35 miles west of Key West.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum's Henrietta Marie exhibit includes shackles that were recovered from the ocean floor and other artifacts from the slave trade. Another museum also tells the in-depth story about the African cemetery.

Shortly before Henrietta Marie wrecked, "she had sold a shipment of 190 captive Africans in Jamaica," according to the museum.

While looking back through history, Morris knows the work of his ancestors is not over.

For more information about the Keys Coalition, call 305-393-7844.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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