Kenneth Morris Webinar: Abolition through Education

On January 20, the Glenbard Social Studies Department hosted a webinar during which Kenneth B. Morris Jr., great-great-great grandson of renowned abolitionist Fredrick Douglass and great-great-grandson of iconic educator Booker T. Washington, spoke to the Glenbard community. Here, students, parents, and faculty alike logged on to Zoom to hear his journey of becoming a modern day abolitionist and activist for the end of slavery and human trafficking across the globe. 

Kenneth Morris descends from two of the most important and influential figures in American history. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Morris has simultaneously paved his own path and now works diligently to put an end to all forms of human exploitation. All throughout his life, Morris described himself as “decisively disengaged” from his lineage. As a child, very few people believed he was telling the truth about his ancestry. This caused Morris to stop talking about his relationship to Douglass and Washington. It was only one day when he saw a National Geographic article on the realities of sex-trafficking, titled 21st Century Slaves, that he was inspired to take advantage of the legacy his ancestors had left for him. In 2007, Morris co-founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative, a non-profit organization which focuses on abolition through education.  

The message of abolition through education was first introduced by Morris through the example of his ancestors. He began the webinar by delving into the lives and experiences of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He explained that Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a plantation, where he lived in the inhumane conditions of chattel slavery until the age of eight. He was then given the opportunity to live in Baltimore as a servant. In Baltimore, Douglass was introduced for the first time to the alphabet by his master Hugh Auld’s wife, Sophia. After learning of the education Douglass was receiving from Sophia, Hugh refused to let Douglass’s lessons carry on, saying that education unfits a man to be a slave. Hugh Auld understood that keeping African Americans uneducated was essential to the perpetuation of slavery. Nevertheless, Douglass persisted in his acquisition of knowledge and went on to become one of the most brilliant Black writers of all time. He understood that with education came power and autonomy, and as Morris said in his speech to the Glenbard community, “the direct pathway from slavery to freedom,” was the acquiring of knowledge.

 Similarly, Booker T. Washington faced many trials to acquire knowledge. In 1872, he left his home and walked roughly 500 miles just to attend college at Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Despite being told he wasn’t worthy, Washington proved himself and went on to found Tuskegee University and advise Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Both Washington and Douglass were born into slavery and defeated indescribable odds to pursue an education and become leaders of the movement for Black liberation. Glenbard North student Om Patel, ’22, commented on the significance of this historical context, saying, “Hearing Mr. Morris talk about his lineage in such detail was definitely fascinating and showed how incredibly important it is to know where you come from. In fact, there was one phrase he said that I think really left a great impact on the students: ‘It is important to know where you come from in order to know where you are going.’”

Through the stories of his ancestors, Morris found inspiration to use his voice for the greater good. In addition to founding the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative, Morris used this Initiative to launch a project titled ‘One Million Abolitionists,’ with the purpose of distributing one million special edition copies of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, to schools across the country. The importance of this book is summed up by Glenbard North Social Studies Department Head Kevin Coon, “I think there’s value for all students, not just students of color, to learn about the leaders and groups that contributed to the advancement of the United States and the global community but are currently underrepresented in our curriculum.” 

The webinar focused on the power of one individual to change the world. Morris went on to say, “History lives in each of us. History doesn’t just live in me because I descend from two people that we’ve heard of. History lives in each and every one of you.” He pushed the importance of knowing where you come from and doing your best to make a positive impact on the world. Along with this, the importance of educating students on abolitionist movements and the detrimental effects of whitewashing history was brought up. Morris related stories of growing up and hearing watered down versions of his ancestors in school, that downplayed their historical impact. 

This raises the question: Do schools nowadays do enough to educate students on topics such as these? Coon remarks on this, saying, “Some people think that just because the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s is over, that all of a sudden the fight for racial equality and all the injustices are over… There is still so much work to be done.” 

The desire for integration of more diverse material in education has been voiced by many members of the community as more and more students see themselves being left out of the curriculum. The need for this material is also expressed by Patel, “I believe schools should definitely do more on educating students about abolitionist leaders because it motivates students to push for more change. Teaching students about abolitionists and activists is a great way to create the next generation’s changemakers.”  

Another place for improvement in the education of students about slavery and Civil Rights was voiced by Glenbard North Advanced Placement US History teacher Matthew Carey, “I think American students need to know the ways in which the American chattel slavery that existed prior to the civil war was a unique institution unlike any other that existed. I do think we should be able to explore that topic in more depth in our US History classes because it is one of the central features (and whose legacy continues to be central) in American history.” 

On October 7, Glenbard District Social Studies teachers met with African American students to hear their thoughts about the changes needed in the curriculum. Here, a panel of students were able to voice their opinions on the inclusivity of the syllabuses of different classes. The students shared their experiences in their respective courses and went in depth on areas they thought could use improvement, like the lack of diverse representation in the literature the school provides. This act on the part of the Social Studies teachers demonstrates their commitment for all students to feel involved and represented.  In the near future, there are plans for a Hispanic/Latinx student panel, an Asian student panel, and a LGBTQ+ student panel to provide different groups of students the chance to speak their mind and become an integral process in the curriculum redesign taking place in Glenbard North and throughout District 87.  

Understanding the importance of educating students about the Civil Rights Movement, and creating an educational environment where everyone is represented is crucial for normalizing conversations about change. Recognizing the role that history plays in our lives today can in turn help us understand and facilitate that change, and use our voices to positively impact the world.