Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great- great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, visited the Nebraska State Historical Society on Thursday, March 10. His visit was part of a larger Nebraska tour where he spoke to school and community groups about the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an organization that he co-founded. The FDFI works to combat modern-day slavery by combining lessons from the legacies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and focusing on prevention through education.
Morris holds a braid of Frederick Douglass’ hair. Douglass is his great-great-great-grandfather.
Nebraska’s connection to Frederick Douglass comes from Ruth Cox Adams (also known as Harriet Bailey), who was Douglass’ adopted sister and life-long friend. Adams lived in several Nebraska towns starting about 1880, eventually settling in Lincoln. She died in Lincoln in 1900 and is buried in Wyuka Cemetery. The NSHS has numerous artifacts from Cox Adams in our collections. A lock of Douglass’ hair that he sent to Cox Adams is one of the more noteworthy, as is a portrait of Cox Adams, handwritten notes, a wooden sewing box, and locks of hair from other family members. You can check out photos and descriptions of the artifacts here. You can read more about Douglass and Cox Adams’ friendship in an article in Nebraska History, “Always on My Mind: Frederick Douglass’s Nebraska Sister” by Tekla A Johnson, John R. Wunder, and Abigail B. Anderson. The article also examines the kinship traditions of former slaves in the late 19th century and how Douglass’ relationships with Ruth Cox Adams may have shaped his passionate beliefs about education and women’s rights. It also includes some transcripts of letters exchanged between the two. In one, Douglass counsels Cox Adams about her upcoming marriage, writing, “You ought not to marry any ignorant and unlearned person – you might as well tie yourself to a log of wood as to do so.” Even if Douglass did not approve of her chosen husband, their letters reveal the deep affection and respect the two held for each other.
Outside of the sewing box Frederick Douglass gave to Ruth Cox Adams. NSHS 11940-1-(1)
But the main reason Morris was visiting Nebraska this week was to promote Arlington High history teacher Barry Jurgensen’s planned 500-mile journey to walk from Nebraska City to Chicago to raise awareness about modern-day slavery. Jurgensen is planning to follow the escape route of two ex-slaves — he calls them freedom seekers — whose names were Celia and Eliza. When possible, Jurgensen will camp outside the places used by the women on the Underground Railroad. Jurgensen is walking to help bring history to life for his students and to raise awareness and money for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. You can read more about his plans here. Morris’s trip to visit the NSHS was a pause during a whirlwind two days of speaking engagements. He was both curious and reverent as he held the small piece of his ancestor’s hair in his hand. “Frederick Douglass didn’t have any split ends,” he said, smiling.