#minorsextrafficking | Frederick Douglass descendant talks human trafficking, the new slavery

“I took it for granted,” Morris said recently. “There was never a time when someone sat me down and told me my history, but I had spent summers at Frederick Douglass’ house on Highland Beach, Maryland. I just didn’t do anything with it. When I read that article, it lit a fire in me.”

Morris, a third great-grandson of Douglass and a second great-grandson of Washington, shared his family history and the pressure he felt growing up in the shadow of his ancestors in a virtual conversation Wednesday sponsored by Deborah J. Richardson and the International Human Trafficking Institute.

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Richardson, executive director of the institute, was working on several national initiatives aimed at ending human trafficking when she met Morris 10 years ago.

“I was immediately struck how his framing of the issue of human trafficking aligned with mine,” she said. “We both agree that the critical work in human trafficking is to ensure that no child is ever exploited in the first place. When I began this series of conversations, I knew we needed to hear from Ken.”

Billed as “The Way forward: The intersections of Race, Gender and Class,” the conversation is intended to help participants connect the dots between chattel slavery and human trafficking and how to join Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, IHTI and others to bring an end to it.

Deborah Richardson is executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, an initiative of the Center for Civil and Human Rights to raise awareness about trafficking. Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Before reading the National Geographic article, Morris believed like so many that slavery had long ended. Now he’d discovered it was still with us, just in a different form. Indeed trafficking amounted to the exploitation of the most vulnerable among us for money, just as chattel slavery had 400 years prior.

As a kid watching “Roots,” Morris was pretty sure had he lived during that time he’d be a voice for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, that he’d be an abolitionist like Douglass.

“Now it was time to put up or shut up,” he said.

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In 2007, Morris co-founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives with his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, and his business partner, Robert Benz. FDFI is a national nonprofit that provides K-12 school children with age appropriate information on how to protect themselves from falling victim to the billion-dollar industry.

Morris told me FDFI had no specific plan when first starting out. His organization simply started contacting every school in the country named for his ancestors and offered to come talk to students about the history.

Thus began the Frederick Douglass Dialogues Tour in 2008. Over the next 30 days, Morris visited 45 schools bearing his ancestors’ names.

He told them about Douglass learning to read, about Washington walking 500 miles to attend Hampton University, detailed many other struggles and why the U.S. government was resistant to Black people receiving an education.

“It really resonated with the students,” Morris said.

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It resonated because Morris never failed to connect history with the present-day struggle for equality and justice.

In the years that followed, FDFI’s prevention education work evolved into an online program called PROTECT, in partnership with two California based nonprofits, 3Strands Global Foundation and Love Never Fails. The program is designed to train teachers to recognize signs of exploitation, what red flags to look out for and earn the certification needed to implement human trafficking prevention education in the classroom.

The program, designed to scale up, has been implemented in more than 30 California counties, and parts of Utah and Texas with the goal of reaching 6.2 million school children in California alone over the next several years.

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In 2010, FDFI developed a service learning project called History, Human Rights and the Power of One to teach kids history and encourage them to use their talent, creativity, and intellect to raise awareness about the issues they are most passionate about, in the same way Douglass used his pen, vote and voice to affect change.

In truth that is what gives Morris hope in the midst of all the craziness happening here and across the globe. It’s true, racism still exists, that police brutality and mass incarceration need to be addressed, that the fate of too many children is determined by their zip codes.

But imagine, Morris said, living in a time when someone owned you and it was illegal to even teach you.

“I think a lot of people would run away from that challenge, but thank goodness Frederick Douglass and many others didn’t or we would be a very different country sitting here today,” Morris said.

That’s why it’s so important to first understand the practical depths of our history.

That history, he said, doesn’t just live in him because he comes from two people we’ve all heard about. We all descend from someone who has overcome, survived, endured, struggled and progressed, and like him, we all have an obligation to carry our history forward, reinforcing to our children that greatness runs through their veins, too.

Why?

Well, because as Douglass put it, “it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

Coming up

The Way Forward: The Intersections of Race, Gender, and Class

3 p.m. July 22, 2020. Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Hosted by the International Human Trafficking Institute (IHTI) of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in collaboration with the Consulate General of Canada. Register at ihtinstitute.org/get-educated.




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