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Frederick Douglass descendant opens FDC

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Kenneth B Morris Jr, Frederick Douglass’s great-great-great grandson, and Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, were among speakers at the grand opening of Newcastle Helix’s Frederick Douglass Centre.

The world-renowned activist, author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass came from the US to Newcastle in 1846 as an escaped slave and performed a lecture tour throughout Great Britain to campaign against slavery. This included staying in Newcastle, which he visited for the first time in 1846 and made several subsequent visits, including delivering speeches on at least 16 separate occasions. This included a lecture to over 1200 people on the evils of slavery and the role of the British in fighting against it. Douglass commented on the peculiar intensity of Tyneside’s anti-slavery passions, and in late December 1846 spoke of his pleasure at seeing “so large an audience assembled for so noble a cause”. Douglass stayed on Summerhill Grove with two Quaker women who actively campaigned for a number of social causes, and raised £150 to buy his freedom. Since then, Douglass has also been commemorated with a blue plaque in Summerhill Grove which was unveiled last year.

University Vice-Chancellor and President Chris Day was the first to speak at the ceremony on Wednesday 13 November. He discussed how the opening of the new learning and teaching centre plays a key role in the University’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusivity, and described how the date of the opening was chosen to mark 52 years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr was awarded an honorary degree by Newcastle University.

After this, Professor Julie Sanders, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, explained how education for life is an important philosophy of the University, and thus a primary purpose of the Helix is to tell the important story of the area, including Douglass’ legacy. She explained how the site marks a “serious commitment to our future” and hoped that the site and the wider University would become a “beacon for higher education and all that it stands for”. Sanders concluded by describing Newcastle as a University of “learning, light and love”.

Newcastle had a heart that could feel for three millions of [sic] oppressed slaves in the United States

Frederick Douglass

Following from this, Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, who played a crucial role in last year’s Freedom City celebrations to mark 50 years since Dr King received his honorary degree, spoke about the role of diversity in the University. She described how the opening of the new Centre marks an “important moment for the city and University” and symbolises the “journey” of the University from a piece of “real estate” to a civic university which has become part of the roots and future of the city. Onwurah praised the region’s history of fighting for social justice, including its history of innovation in areas ranging as wide as industry, science, politics and social justice, and quoted Douglass when he said that “Newcastle had a heart that could feel for three millions of oppressed slaves in the United States”. Onwurah concluded by describing how Newcastle’s strength comes from its sense of community and how it has become united despite its differences, and described the city as a “shining beacon for social justice across the world”.

This was followed a talk from Sara Elkhawad, Welfare and Equality Officer at the Students’ Union, who discussed her recent Black is Gold campaign which celebrated black excellence in the city and thanked the local community for their involvement. She spoke about the overwhelming positive response she had received, including a student saying to her that the Black History Campaign made them “feel at home despite being the minority”. Activities Officer Eleanor Killner furthered this by discussing the Students’ Union’s commitment to the equality, diversity and inclusivity environment on campus, and detailed the Frederick Douglass Legacy Award which invites students from BAME backgrounds to creatively respond to global social justice themes such as racism, poverty and the climate crisis. It is hoped that some of these creative responses will be permanent installations for a long-term exhibition and showcased in future events hosted at the building.

After this was a speech by Father Brian F. Linnane, President of Loyola University Maryland. He reflected on Frederick Douglass’ life, including his journey from the US to Britain. He acknowledged the historic ties between Frederick Douglass and the city of Baltimore, where Loyola University is based.

The hour is late, the clock of destiny is ticking out, and we must act now before it’s too late

Martin Luther King

The ceremony was concluded with keynote speaker Kenneth B Morris Jr, who is related to not just but two civil activists, being the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T Washington. After praising the “magnificent building”, he applauded the University’s recognition of Anna Murray, who was Douglass’ first wife and who inspired much of his activism, including sewing his sailor’s disguise for him when he was a fugitive slave. Morris described the importance of focussing on not just our history and past but also our present and future, reflecting that we “need to know where we come from to know where we’re headed”, and said that racial equality seems just as unattainable as it did when Douglass was alive, as evidence through inequalities in medical care, economic situations, education and police brutality. He said that, with the celebrations of both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Newcastle had established itself as a “custodian of the legacy of two of the world’s greatest freedom fighters”, but with this comes a commitment and responsibly to keep pushing for the furthering of human rights. Morris concluded with a quote from Martin Luther King: “the hour is late, the clock of destiny is ticking out, and we must act before it’s too late”.

After his speech, Morris unveiled a plaque in the Centre.

Last modified: 19th November 2019

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