One of Ken Morris's earliest memories is of spending summers in his family's beach home on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. At the top of the stairs was a larger-than-life portrait of an impeccably dressed Frederick Douglass.
"I would try to sneak pass the portrait but I imagined this deep baritone voice bellowing, 'You will do great things, young man.' I started to feel the weight of expectation," said Morris.
With good reason. Morris is a direct descendant of two of the most important names in American history: he's the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington. In anticipation of his Tuesday, April 19 appearance at Boise's Morrison Center, where he'll be honored by the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, Morris spoke with Boise Weekly about his bloodlines and his advocacy to address what he calls the contemporary slavery spectrum.
Can you define contemporary slavery? I'm assuming we're talking about human trafficking, yes?
When you boil down the elements of slavery—history or contemporary—it's about profit. And today, selling people is a multi-billion dollar industry. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and the 13th Amendment was ratified, a good many people thought slavery had ended. But institutionalized, illegal slavery continues.
Do you have a sense of why contemporary slavery is not on the radar of most Americans? Is it because we don't put a face or voice to the issue?
When you look at cancer or HIV/AIDS, we all know someone who has been affected. It's easy to connect. Unless your family has been touched by, say, forced prostitution, it's hard to wrap our minds around that there are indeed humans evil enough to sell other humans. And a lot of people think that contempoary slavery is too big of a problem for one person to do anything about it.
To that end, is it fair to say that contemporary slavery touches our lives more than we recognize?
It's the child in West Africa, climbing trees to harvest your cocoa. It's the little girl in India doing needle work for the rugs we stand on. It's the boys swimming in disease-infested waters to harvest the fish that go into our markets. And of course, it's the children who are sold over and over again as sex slaves. Frederick Douglass said, "It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men."
What's your earliest memory of learning about your bloodlines?
Can you imagine seeing your ancestors on money, stamps or statues? I would go to dedications of schools or libraries and some of the older folks wanted to touch my cheek or my hand. It was rather intimidating.
And your own children?
I have two daughters, 17 and 21 years old. They're the reason I do this work. My younger daughter, Nicole, and I were back East, visiting campuses because she'll be off to college this fall. We were at Ithaca College, not far from where Frederick Douglass spoke, fighting for the rights of African Americans, for women, for all people. We stood on that campus and wondered if he ever would have imagined that one of his descendants would, some day, go to that college up on the hill. It really hit home. My daughters may act like they're not impressed in front of me, but I hear them talking about it often with their friends. And, on Feb. 1 of this year, the Google search engine of the day was Frederick Douglass. They knew their family had hit the big time when their friends said, "Wow."
Idaho's history has included racism, sexism and xenophobia. That said, you should know that in the heart of Boise is our Anne Frank Memorial, where the words of Frederick Douglass are etched into stone.
That's wonderful. I had planned on doing some research on Boise and that makes me excited to learn more.