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Descendant of Frederick Douglass talks historic, modern slavery with Sacred Heart students

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By Marge Bitetti

RANCHO CUCAMONGA—Students of Sacred Heart School got a lesson in both the historic evil of slavery and its modern form from a descendant of two African-American pioneers at an on-campus forum held Nov. 15. 

 Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, was one of two speakers who challenged students to see the relationship between faith and social justice.

 “History is important because there is nothing that you can’t do to overcome challenges,” Morris told the students.

 The event was conceived by Sacred Heart Principal Trenna Meins, who wanted to broaden the educational experience for her eighth grade students who had been reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. 

 In order to make the situations the students were reading about in the book more vivid, Meins arranged for them to have a field trip to a San Bernardino County courtroom, an opportunity to speak with a judge and the ability to witness part of a preliminary trial. Meins followed this experience by scheduling the on-campus forum.

 Other Catholic schools in the Diocese were invited and attended, including Our Lady of the Assumption, Resurrection Academy, Sacred Heart Academy, St. Adelaide Academy, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. Margaret Mary, St. Thomas and Aquinas High School.

 The first speaker was Richard La Fianza, a Supervising Deputy Public Defender for San Bernardino County, Central Division. La Fianza shared three meaningful cases that illustrated to the students how people can make a difference in the lives of others. 

 “Innocent people are sometimes charged with crimes,” said La Fianza, explaining his role as a public defender. “Sometimes people are overcharged for their offenses, and we are more than our worst days.”

 He concluded his talk with the words of Pope Francis, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

 The second talk was delivered by Morris, who is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which has a mission to advance freedom through knowledge and strategic action. Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. His writings describe his experiences in slavery and his life after the Civil War, including the well-known work, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”

 Morris’s other famous forebearer, Booker T. Washington, was an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents. Between 1890 and 1915, he was a dominant leader in the African-American community, founding Alabama’s famous Tuskegee University. 

 Morris’ presentation included a family tree and historic family photos to illustrate to the students the importance of knowing family roots and family history. He said, “We need to know where we came from to know where we are headed.” He stressed to the students the importance of education using a quote of his ancestor Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

 The sharing of knowledge was the fundamental principal of both of his ancestors and it is essential for the work of Morris’ nonprofit and his work to effect change of human rights and human trafficking. He shared how Frederick Douglass was so eager for knowledge that he traded bread for reading lessons and books. 

 “He would rather feed his mind than his stomach,” Morris said.

 In honor of the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass, Morris’ organization reprinted hardcover copies of the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which was originally published in 1845. Legislation was signed by President Donald Trump creating a commission to plan the 200th anniversary celebrations of Douglass which will occur in February 2018. Morris will be part of the commission. A few lucky students received complimentary copies of this historic book for correctly answering questions presented by Morris. After the presentation ended he took time to personally sign each of the books for the students.

 Morris’s shared that his own journey in promoting education began over 12 years ago when he read an article in National Geographic Magazine about 21st century slavery. He eventually decided to leave a successful advertising career and focus instead on educating people on the evil of slavery. He has developed a curriculum directed toward educators and students and has given lectures about his historic ancestors at schools and universities across the United States.

 Although his presentation focused mostly on his historic roots he was able to bridge the link from the slavery endured by his ancestors to slavery in the world today. He noted that 20 million people in the world today live in some form of slavery.

 “Slavery is about profit and money,” he said. “Millions of people around the world are forced into working in slave labor.” 

 He challenged the students to think about the conditions under which the clothing they wear is made and offered at a low cost. “As consumers we want a good deal but we are complacent.” 

 The students were totally engaged during his presentation. He was able to hold their attention and had active participation and frequently paused to accepted questions from the students. 

 Showing a photo of the Douglass home, a National Historic Site, he shared a story about the admiration that he had for the shoes of Frederick Douglass. He recounted how he often admired them from the hallway of the bedroom in the famed historic home that once belonged to his famous relative. But when he had the opportunity he did not try on the shoes. He explained to the students, “You can take the shoes that you have to make a better tomorrow. You guys are going to do great things. You have greatness flowing in your veins. You are the next generation of leaders, make choices that are part of the solution.”


Marge Bitetti is a freelance writer and a parishioner of St. Matthew in Corona.