A year ago, I learned that the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, lived only 15 or 20 miles down the road from me in California. I became aware of Kenneth B. Morris Jr. when I wrote a story for NBC news about the coffee-table book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, which said the legendary leader was also the most photographed man of the 19th Century.
I started my article thus:
“Born into slavery in 1818, it’s likely that Frederick Douglass wore rags as a child. But he borrowed the clothing of a seaman and stole away to freedom in 1838. As an abolitionist, author, and adviser to U.S. presidents, he donned luxurious ascots, vests and overcoats. Historians know this because 160 distinct portraits of him exist — compared to only 126 of President Lincoln.”
It was paging through the book—a new edition of which will soon be published with eight new FD photographs—that I became aware of Douglass’ descendant Kenneth.
After nearly a year of back and forth emails, I finally got Ken to come to my house for lunch last March, and we talked for a couple of hours about one of his famous grandfathers. (The other was Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington.) I recorded our conversation, and then let the voice memo sit, untranscribed, for the better part of a year.
Then around October, I finally got it typed up. More than 30 pages worth. I traveled much of October and November, worked on a project in December, and when I came up for air in January, I realized it was the Year of Frederick Douglass already, and groups around the country had already begun celebrating the 200th year of Douglass’ birth.
In a great rush, I called up Douglass’ descendants, heads of organizations hosting FD events throughout 2018, and even chatted with a man whose family once enslaved Douglass in Maryland. I pitched stories to several outlets, but no one bit.
Then I thought, What Would Frederick Do? He’d publish the stories himself. In fact, he was a newspaper publisher.
So, since we still have a free press—so far—I’ll be posting stories about Douglass that inspire me in the coming days, weeks, and months. If you have information about a cool Douglass event, or a Douglass story that inspires you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As A.J. Aiseirithe,one of the people keeping a Frederick Douglass Bicentennial calendar, told me: “We could start right now and tell stories about him…through the end of 2018, and we would not have said everything that needs to be said.”