Descendant of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington launches anti-human trafficking initiative at Westwood High School

A descendant of two civil rights pioneers challenged Westwood High School students to become “modern day abolitionists” in the battle against human trafficking.

Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, speaks to students at Westwood High School about his family's legacy and Globalize 13 (photo by Kelly Petty).

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, speaks to students Monday at Westwood High School about his family’s legacy and Globalize 13. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, launched the Globalize 13 initiative at the high school Monday.

Westwood was one of three schools nationwide selected to host the public awareness project and the first to kick off the year-long venture.

“We believe students can be the most effective agents of change in their community because of their passion, their energy,” Morris said. “Frederick Douglass said it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, and we believe … that we can change the paradigm of contemporary slavery in our community with young people being the starting point.”

Globalize 13 is a national service-learning project for schools to encourage students to question the use of slave labor labor to make products Americans use every day. The program is designed to help schools connect with their communities to push for policies that put an end to slave labor.

According to a report from the International Labor Organization, modern slavery claims 20.9 million victims at any time, up from 12. 3 million in 2005. About 55 percent of forced labor victims are women and girls. The Asia and Pacific regions continue to hold the largest number of victims, though the numbers have increased in countries in Africa since 2005, the report states.

“Everyone’s got products,” said Robert J. Benz, founder and executive vice president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “The question is were those products made by someone who was paid fairly.”

The program also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude in America. Morris said he hopes to get more than 1,000 schools involved in Globalize 13 throughout next year leading up to the anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6.

“It’s important that the students have the understanding of the foundation of history and the slavery that we’re most familiar with so that they can make the connection to the contemporary forms of slavery and then be inspired to go out and do something about it in their communities,” Morris said.

Westwood High School became involved in Globalize 13 after English teacher Stacey Plotner came across the program while researching the narrative of Frederick Douglass for one of her lessons.

The Westwood High School campus gathered to see student presentations for the Globalize 13 initiative (photo by Kelly Petty).

Westwood High School staff and students gathered Monday to see student presentations for the Globalize 13 initiative. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Morris conducted a Skype session with Plotner’s class to talk about his family’s legacy and history and later encouraged her to enter the school into the Globalize 13 program. Her students since then have studied historical and modern day slavery and their commonalities, designed a campaign and started an organization dedicated to human trafficking.

“It was just amazing … what one group of 28 students could do,” Plotner said. “The students are just motivated. They are lit up. They want to really show that they can be modern-day abolitionists.”

Globalize 13 is a three-part program focused on history, human rights and the power of one. The free school lessons can be downloaded from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website and include historical lessons about the 13th Amendment and how it came to be, information on how and why slavery is prevalent in the global supply chain and how students can partner to educate others about slave labor in order to abolish it.

“History lives in each of us,” Morris said. “The future depends on how we carry that forward.”

Morris said his family history was a blessing and a burden to live up to. He spent a lot of time as a child visiting Twin Oaks, a home built by Douglass’s grandson that overlooks Chesapeake Bay, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.

He also was able to talk to Fannie Douglass, the wife of Douglass’s grandson who met the abolitionist and lived to be 103, and his Aunt Porscha, who was the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. Knowing that he came into close contact with individuals who touched both leaders made him feel closer to his distant relatives.

But as he got older he felt pressure to live up to his family’s name and carry the torch. He shied away from telling others about his family ties for some time. But he realized his purpose when he saw a magazine with the words “21st Century Slavery” emblazoned on the front and read stories of children who were made to work long hours catch fish and weave rugs or who were being sold as sex slaves. The Midlands recently has been touched by the phenomenon, and sting operations were conducted to bust prostitution rings in Springdale and Columbia.

Morris has fought as president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives to bring awareness to various forms of human trafficking and advocate for human rights through the philosophy of “abolition through education.”

“I believe that if my ancestors were here today, they would expect that their descendant continue the fight that they started,” he said. “We’re starting with young people as our agents of change, so I believe that they would be proud and everything that they do and their legacy really guides me every single day that I wake up.”

Categories: Richland County