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In conversation with Kenneth B. Morris, Jr

Written by News

Joe Molander spoke to the great-great-great-grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass ahead to his opening of the new Frederick Douglass Centre on the Helix site.

What brings you to Newcastle?

I’m here for the dedication and naming ceremony of the new Frederick Douglass centre here at Newcastle University, so I’m very honoured to have made the trip all the way from southern California, with my wife Diana, we’re happy to be here.

You’ve been involved in other events too haven’t you?

Yes, there’s been a whole week of activities. Yesterday we had a workshop about decolonising the curriculum, and then on Monday we did a walking tour and visited sites significant in the life of Frederick Douglass in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and that was something that was very impactful and emotional and very humbling, to walk in the footsteps of my great ancestor, who was here in 1846, and I believe gave at least sixteen speeches and talks in this area over a number of years.

What’s the response been like on-campus? I’m sure the people organising it have been very careful to give a good impression, but have you talked to other students?

I haven’t had a chance really to interact with students at all, I’m hoping to do that at the event tonight. Yesterday’s workshop was for the professors that are here on-campus, but just interacting not only with the people that I’ve met on-campus but at the hotel where we’re staying and moving about Newcastle, first of all the people here are the most friendly that I’ve ever encountered in the world, so that’s a great thing, but also this idea that this place was so important for the life of Frederick Douglass and for his freedom. I was thinking the other day that he had abolitionist friends that were trying to encourage him to stay here, and he knew that he needed to go back and fight for his brethren that were toiling away in chains and in slavery in the United States, and had he not returned, I don’t know that I could say that I would be here today. That gives me chills, to think about that.

Do you think that a building like the Frederick Douglass Centre that celebrates activists does the same thing as activism?

To celebrate and commemorate is one thing, and that is something that I think is a beautiful thing, to name this building for the great freedom fighter Frederick Douglass, and I know two years ago the university erected a statue for Martin Luther King. That is also a burden of responsibility. When you’re going to be keepers of the legacies of two of the world’s greatest heroes, and that is also a reminder that the struggle continues and that work still needs to be done, and so while I hope that people will be inspired to know that there’s a statue of Dr. King on-campus and that there’s a building named for my great ancestor, it also should be a reminder that we need to still continue the fight for equality and for justice.

Do you think that institutions like universities should do more to fight for social justice and equality?

I don’t think I could generally say all universities: I really think it depends on the individual university. There’s some that are doing more, some that are doing less, some that have in their curriculum or their syllabus social justice, but it is a reminder that if you’re going to celebrate the great freedom fighters that came before, you have a responsibility to make sure that it’s not just name recognition, that there’s activism.

Across campuses a few years ago, particularly in conservative circles, there was seen to be a lot of social justice, and now we’re seeing a kickback against that, with people being against political correctness and against wokeness. Do you think that’s helpful for university environments or do you think that goes against promoting social justice?

There are lots of diverse opinions, and people coming from all over the political spectrum: I think that a university should be a place where you have those debates and conversations, and you don’t want to just erase history, or water it down, or whitewash it. For a place like Newcastle to have two great black figures on-campus, that should spark a lot of conversation and debate, which I think is very healthy.

Do you think in fighting for equality, the burden falls more on institutions or the individual?

It falls on both. It’s harder to affect change in an institution, because things are institutionalised; as an individual, we can work to effect change in the world around us. We do a lot of work with secondary school students in the United States, and a lot of times, the students that we come into contact with that are passionate about many different issues – they’re passionate about the environment, eradicating homelessness and poverty and fighting for the rights of women and girls, and passing gun legislation, and a lot of times young people don’t think that they can work on global issues. It feels greater than they are. But in the work that we do with them, which many times involves service learning or civic engagement, where students are learning about some point in history, and then we transition into talking about a contemporary human rights issue, and then there’s always a service component, we call that formula “history, human rights and the power of one”. The power of one is volunteerism, civic engagement, service in the community, which is the empowerment for young people. Once they start working, using their passion, their intellect, their creativity to address those issues that they most care about, and then they see that people of importance or leadership are listening to them and their community, then they begin to believe that they can effect change, and then it’s a ripple effect. When you look at Dr. King, or you look at Frederick Douglass, they started on local issues. They were able to convince people to support their ideas and their work and then they started to develop coalitions and then movements, and we have the benefit of looking back through the prism of history and holding them up on these pedestals and venerating them. When they were in the middle of doing the work, I don’t think they were thinking, Frederick Douglass was thinking there’s gonna be a multi-million dollar building that would be named for him, he just did the work and started in many cases at the local level, and then expanded into something that was national and international.

If it requires people and organisations like yours to go into schools and unlock students’ potential, do you think schools aren’t doing enough? Do you think educational reform is necessary?

Educational reform is definitely necessary, and I’m speaking from the perspective of what I know best, and that’s the United States, and there, in many communities, people of colour, people that are poor, do not have equal access to education, to economic opportunity, there are disparities in access to healthcare, and a lot of things that are oppressive in communities. Education was key for Frederick Douglass’s freedom: he was enslaved for twenty years, and we know from our US history it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read and write, so he had to steal his education. In fact, later in life, when people would see this great white-haired statesmen, who was the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, first African American US Marshall, first African American ambassador to Haiti, first African American quarter of deeds for the District of Columbia and the list goes on and on and on, they would say “Frederick, where did you get your education?”. Having never spent one day of his life in a classroom, he would on occasion respond by saying “my degree is written on my back”. What he was referring to was all the whippings and the beatings he took because he tried to self-educate, and by educating himself he was able to liberate himself. He understood that education was the pathway to freedom, and that is as relevant today as it was all those years ago, so education reform is necessary in a lot of places. Just because you’re born in a certain zip code or post code and you have less access to these types of things than somebody else that was more fortunate to be born into another zip code, we have to figure out a way to level the playing field so that everybody has equal opportunity and access.

How do you think we should do that? What reforms would you like to see?

It comes with changing legislation and changing institutionalised norms. At our organisation, we do a lot of work around human trafficking prevention and education, and developing prevention curriculums for the classroom and training of educators on how to recognise signs of human trafficking, the red flags, what to look out for, and we’ve been doing that since 2007, and it’s been very hard work because we’re on the front end trying to prevent it from happening, whereas most of the resources and effort is put into the backend, reacting after the crime’s been committed, law enforcement comes in and arrests and prosecutes. Organisations come in to rescue, restore and rehabilitate victims, and so you create this cycle of exploitation that just turns: if you’re just rescuing, restoring and rehabilitating victims, you’re not getting ahead. So we decided we’re gonna put the focus on education, using the examples not only of Frederick Douglass but also my great-great-grandfather Booker T Washington, who was also born into slavery and the founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as examples that we could begin to eradicate human trafficking in communities through education or institutionalised knowledge that’s ongoing in the classroom, and we’ve only really been able to start to make significant progress in the past three years because we’ve been able to get some legislation passed. At the federal level, in January 2019, we got the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act passed. We’re doing a big human trafficking training and education project in California, we were able to get state legislation passed that mandates this education once in middle school and once in high school, so I think if you’re going to attack any type of issue in communities around the country, and again I’m talking the United States, we have to start changing legislation, and in order to do that you’ve gotta convince the public that it needs to be changed so that they’ll elect the politicians that will do what needs to be done.

I’d imagine the victims of human trafficking aren’t confident that legislation is enough to protect them from harm. Is it hard to get them to work with legislatures?

Frederick Douglass is a great example of this: he was a survivor of slavery. He had the courage to escape, and he wasn’t happy being a fugitive slave in a free territory: he would eventually wind up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and begin work there in the ship-docks as a ship-corker, but he looked back and saw there was work that still needed to be done to dismantle the institution of slavery, so he was an important survivor voice who helped to really change the trajectory of the abolitionist movement, because prior to that, people like the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison were using moral suasion to try and change the country’s attitudes towards slavery by saying “this is morally wrong”. Yes, it’s morally wrong but to now have this person that can give you a first-hand account of the atrocities that he had suffered through and could articulate them in a way because he was a gifted speaker and communicator. That really changed the movement, so when you talk about human trafficking, the voices of survivors and survivor leaders are probably the most important because they can give a first-hand account in any situation in front of any audience. The challenge with that also is have they got to a place where they have been restored to some semblance of wholeness after suffering that type of trauma, and when you’re talking about a child having had their childhood stripped away from them and they’ve been sold for sex or used for labour, you have to be very sensitive and careful that you’re not re-exploiting or re-traumatising someone who’s not ready to get out there and tell their story.

There’s a perception state and federal legislatures are ineffective. Was it difficult to work with them?

It was time-consuming: the Frederick Douglass Act which I’ve mentioned took us several years to get done, but when you think about an issue like human trafficking, people would naturally say that’s a bipartisan issue, there’s nobody that’s for trafficking or exploiting a child, a woman or a man for labour or for sex, but when you start to talk about money, it’s gonna be appropriated from the bill into services or into what we do, prevention and education, then it becomes partisan. When you think about where this money is gonna go, it becomes very political.

When you were working with the state and federal governments, where did you find the most support from?

Oh gosh. Well we helped to write the prevention and education section. The bill originally was enacted in 2000, it was called the Human Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the TVPA, and we thought when we started doing our work in 2007, we looked at that bill and we thought it was flawed because it only addresses after, it was reactionary. If we’re just reacting all the time, we’re in constant disaster relief mode, trying to clean up the mess. I use an analogy to help people understand what I mean by that: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the gulf, and devastated the seafood industry there. People act with an abundance of heart first, and when we see on the TV these images of the wildlife covered in oil, you see all this oil on the surface and you think “man, that’s a disaster, we’ve gotta get down there, we’ve gotta clean up that mess”, that’s the first thing we think. What BP did was put a camera at the bottom of the ocean and they showed the world what the priority was: capping the well that was spilling millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Had they not done that, we would still be out there today trying to clean up the mess. That’s how the TVPA was addressing human trafficking: just trying to clean up the mess we see on the surface. When we start working on prevention education instead, we cap the well, hopefully preventing more victims spewing into the cycle of exploitation. When we looked at the TVPA, which gets reauthorized every four years, we thought “if we can just get that one word inserted into it: ‘prevention’, then we would begin to have a conversation about making prevention a priority, and then we thought “well, 2018 was Frederick Douglass’s bicentennial, why don’t we see if we can get them to name the act for Fredrick Douglass?”. It was a challenge, it took time, but thankfully we were able to get it done, there was money that was appropriated, it still hasn’t been distributed yet, but it will at some point.

Given your organisation’s focus on education, do you feel the biggest course of modern-day slavery is ignorance?

That’s part of it: slavery really has existed throughout humanity’s history, there’s always been slavery, and it just takes on new forms and it takes on new shape. In the United States public consciousness, people know slavery ended with the work of Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, the signing of the emancipation proclamation, and then the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery and made it illegal. When you start talking about this new form, something which looks like slavery, with a lot of similar components to slavery, when you boil it down, it’s the same. It’s about money, it’s about profit, it’s about exploiting the most vulnerable among us, and so I don’t know exactly who came up with the term human trafficking, but it had a lot to do with the fact that we had to call it something else, because people wouldn’t be convinced that slavery still exists. Over time, there are more and more people that are willing to call it modern-day slavery, which President Obama did at one point in a speech, he called it what it is, and that’s modern-day slavery. A lot of people in the American public don’t realise that it’s something that exists, so there’s an educational process that goes on: when we’re talking about education in that context, we’re talking about educating the public on the existence of it so that they have awareness. The education in the classroom is trying to reduce the vulnerability of those that are most likely to be exploited.

Do you think that the work you’re doing has been more supported under recent political administration?   

I was talking about this being a bipartisan issue, for the most part. All I can say is we’ve been able to get legislation passed, in spite of the current occupant of the Oval Office not necessarily knowing that Frederick Douglass is not still alive. We’ve been able to get a lot of work done in this administration, with the support of a Republican lawmaker out of New Jersey, Chris Smith, who is a big Frederick Douglass fan; he’s the one that introduced the first TVPA in 2000, he’s been the leader on Capitol Hill in the House of Representatives on all things human trafficking. Because of Representative Chris Smith, we’ve been able to get a lot done.

Do you feel the pressure to live up to your ancestors? 

When we started the organisation, it was a dual mission. One was that we needed to honour and preserve and lift up and teach about the legacies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, but we didn’t want the organisation to just be about history. We always ask the question “what would Frederick Douglass, what would Booker T. Washington do?” when we sit down to develop a new project. I’ve always known I’m descended from both of the men. I spent all of my Summers at Frederick Douglass’s Summer beach house, which was built by my great-great-great-grandfather Charles, who was Frederick and Anna’s youngest son. Charles asked his dad if he wanted any special features on the house, and Frederick said “I want a tower at the top, and I want it to point in a certain direction”. What he wanted to do at the end of his life was sit in that tower and look back across the bay, because on the other side you could see land, and that land is the Eastern shore of Maryland where he’d been born into slavery and where he had toiled away in chains and so here was a man who had accomplished so much that I’d mentioned earlier and at the end of his life he never wanted to forget where he came from, even though he had suffered through the horrors of slavery. I spent all of my Summers in that house, and there were images of my ancestors everywhere, and I was probably five or six when I started to notice that my ancestors were on statues and that buildings were being named for them, and bridges and libraries and schools. I started to realise they were important, but I was challenged by the fact that there was this burden of expectation that you carry around. When you’re younger, people don’t believe you, you’re embarrassed about it, so I didn’t talk about it. I spent most of my life running away from their legacies. I’d also seen what the pressure had done to some of those that came before me. There’s been tragedy in the family that’s come out of trying to live up to be an iconic leader like Frederick Douglass. I went to college and dropped out after a couple years, and then started my own business advertising and marketing, and it became very successful. I’ve been married for thirty five years, we have two daughters that are now 24 and 21: I was happy. Great career, great family life, I’m good: don’t talk to me about this Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington stuff. But it wasn’t until I read a National Geographic cover story in 2005 that was passed onto me by a business partner and a friend and the headline was “21st Century Slavery”, and it was about human trafficking and modern-day slavery. It completely changed my life: I didn’t realise that slavery still lived on and existed in every country around the world, including in the United States. At the time, my daughters were 12 and 9, and I read another article about a 12 year old girl who was forced to be a sex slave in the brothels of South East Asia, and service countless men almost every single day, so my older daughter Jenna was the same age, and there was one night where my girls were getting ready for bed, and I could hear them down the hallway and they were laughing, and they were playing and ready to get down on their knees and say their prayers and get tucked safely into bed, and I’m thinking about this 12 year old girl in South East Asia. My mind just starts going crazy, and I walked in to say goodnight to my girls and I had this moment where I didn’t feel like I could look them in the eyes and walk away and not do something about this. It was almost immediate, where everything inside of me, perhaps I was on a path or on a journey, because everything that I’ve learned throughout my career, I’ve used for the work that we’re doing now, so I guess I’ve been on a path or journey, but that was the moment. “What are you going to do? You’ve got this platform that your ancestors have built through struggle and through sacrifice, how do we leverage the historical significance of my ancestry to do something about this?” So we have the great abolitionist on one side in Frederick Douglass and we have the great educator on the other side in Booker T Washington, abolition through education, let’s use their examples and their legacies to go in, and their examples not only of education but of activism. To go in and see what we can do around this, and that’s where we are, here today. So I think because I’ve found this mission on my own, it’s more meaningful than if it had been forced on me.

Last modified: 20th November 2019

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