When it comes to uncovering the history of our ancestors, it’s sometimes plausible to overlook the tenacity and fervor with which unprecedented trails were blazed for us. In the fast paced world of instant-gratification we live in, it can also be easy for new generations to consider the past a blur, thus neglecting the impact of our forefathers. In Black history, the plight is even more difficult, because tracing our origins starts with facing hard truths about the tragic realities we’ve faced.
As the nation remembers 400 years of slavery in the United States, it is important we take a deeper, honest look into who we are and the strength that’s brought us thus far. Recently, Pasadena Celebrates 2020 held it’s 131st Rose Parade, this time commemorating historical figures and paying homage to those who’ve advocated for women’s rights to vote. As part of the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, the parade featured a “Bouquet of Descendants” float which included descendants of Elizabeth Candy Stanton (Coline Jenkins), Ida B. Wells (Michelle Duster), and Susan B. Anthony (Marci Magnatta).
Also apart of the float were descendants of Harriet Tubman (Ernestine Wyatt) and Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington (Kenneth B. Morris Jr.). In two candid interviews with Wyatt and Morris Jr., the Sentinel gained unique insight into the minds of these unmitigated game-changers for Black people in America.
Ernestine Wyatt is the great-great-great grand-niece of Harriet Tubman and says she grew up shying away from her legacy out of fear that people simply wouldn’t believe her. In her own family, however, discussing “Aunt Harriet,” as she is affectionately known, was commonplace. Wyatt, who’s profession has been in education and nursing, says she feels most connected to Tubman’s faith and selfless qualities. “It wasn’t about herself, it was always about other people and how she could help others have a better life,” Wyatt said. “She knew that if she could think about other people and what was good for them, that that was going to be good for her in the long run.”
Today, Wyatt says she hopes to bring greater insight into Tubman’s role in the Civil War, citing how Tubman was called upon by the governor of Massachusetts at the time to serve as scout. “They knew that she would be an asset to the Union,” Wyatt said. “All the fellow abolitionists knew of her, that she could hide in plane sight, she was good at disguising, she was good at strategizing and analyzing different situations.”
Wyatt went on to say that Tubman knew the repercussions of serving as a scout with a bounty on her head, but didn’t fear the costs of ensuring freedom for those she fought for. “She felt that if Lincoln would free the slaves and allow them to fight in the war, that the Union would be preserved. The Union that we see now, is the Union that Aunt Harriet helped to preserve,” she continued.
As 2020 commences, Wyatt is securing additional signatures contending for Tubman’s placement on the twenty-dollar bill. “I’m going to pass it onto the treasury office to let them know we have not forgotten,” she proclaimed. “She deserves to be on that twenty, because she’s an American patriot,” she added.
While proud of the recent blockbuster film “Harriet,” Wyatt says she’s focused on doing the groundwork, spearheading programs and events such as Harriet Tubman Day in Washington, D.C. and letting people know that “the work is never done”. “Aunt Harriet was a woman of God. She stood up for her right, she stood up for justice, equality, she stood up for the oppressed, but when she did it, there was no malice in her heart,” she stated.
For Frederick Douglass descendant Kenneth B. Morris Jr., who bears an uncanny resemblance to the famed statesman, orator and abolitionist, he is most proud of Douglass’ “lifelong commitment to the fight for women’s rights and women’s suffrage.”
And interestingly enough, Morris Jr. is not only the great-great-great grandson to Douglass, he’s also the great-great grandson to Booker T. Washington. Morris Jr. says that his earliest memories date back to when he was five or six years old spending summers at his family’s Frederick Douglass beach house, where he learned all about his unique heritage. “I started to notice that they were on statues, money, postage stamps; schools were named for them, libraries, bridges; and everywhere I turned, I could feel that I was in this long, vast shadow of two of the country’s greatest heroes,” Morris Jr. stated.
While Morris Jr. says he had spent the majority of his life running away from the pressures associated with his great ancestry, it was a 2005 National Geographic article called the 21st Century Slaves that ignited his calling to end contemporary forms of slavery. Now an abolitionist, Morris Jr. fights namely against the perils of human trafficking, providing K-12 school children with age appropriate information on how to protect themselves from falling victim to the billion dollar, black market industry.
Morris Jr. says that in order to deal with modern day forms of slavery such as human sex trafficking, child labor, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, it is important not to be reactionary, but rather proactive in our approach toward change through education, technology and the arts.
Morris Jr. then recounted his knowledge of Douglass who at 22, was only two years removed from slavery and realized early on that he could use photography to “make his arguments for liberation and equality,” becoming the most photographed American of the 19th Century by “design and by strategy”. “When you look at a picture of me, you’re never going to deny that I am a man worthy of freedoman worthy of citizenship,” Morris Jr. said, recounting the revolutionary declaration made by his forefather.
It is this same zeal, Morris Jr. says, that other young people can rely upon to tell their own truths while igniting the abolitionist within. “We always want to encourage them (students) to use their talent, their passion, their creativity and their intellect to address not only this issue, but any issue that they’re passionate about,” he said.
As far as the continued “cyclical trauma” many Blacks still face, rooted in the remnant of slavery, Morris Jr. says we must first understand the practical depths of our history. “There was no plan for emancipation, so when the last of 4 million enslaved people were freed in June of 1865, there was no counseling,” he said. “There was no Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) designation. These were people that had been separated from their family. Many didn’t know how to read or write and didn’t own anything,” he continued.
“One of the first things is understanding where we come from. We don’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we come from. History lives in each of us, it doesn’t just live in me because I extend from two people that we’ve heard of. We all descend from somebody that overcame, survived, endured, struggled and progressed,” Morris Jr. said.
“Imagine living in a time when the federal government says it’s legal to own you, and it’s illegal to teach you. I think a lot of people would run away from that challenge,” Morris Jr. said, “but thank goodness Frederick Douglass and many others didn’t or we would be a very different Country sitting here today.”
Morris Jr. says we can expect to see more books, musicals, curricula and exhibitions being released in 2020 as part of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDDI) and collective strides to extend and remember the Douglass legacy.