As we celebrate Independence Day, we should also remember that not all Americans were free until 89 years after 1776, when Union soldiers sailed into Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued 2 1/2 years earlier. That act freed the last of our 250,000 ancestors bound by slavery.
The anniversary of that day of freedom was celebrated across the country a few weeks ago by the Juneteenth holiday. Here in central Illinois it was celebrated with a speech June 15 by the descendant of two of the most towering figures in African-American history. Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the great great great grandson of Frederick Douglass, and the great great grandson of Booker T. Washington, delivered an inspiring speech at the National Freedom Day Gala of Decatur’s African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society of Illinois Museum. I had the pleasure of attending that event in Decatur along with about 100 others.
Douglass was a prominent abolitionist orator and author, who had escaped from slavery at age 20, and became a friend of President Lincoln. Washington, also born into slavery, became a leader of African-Americans from 1890 to 1915 and founded the Tuskegee Institute. Morrris’ grandfather, Frederick Douglass III (Frederick Douglass’ great grandson) met Morris’ grandmother, Nettie Hancock Washington (Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter) at Tuskegee Institute.
While Morris never met either of the historical giants, his great grandmother told him what it was like to meet the man with the “Great Big White Hair,” as she called Douglass. Morris told of how, through the power of education, Douglass was able to rise up from slavery. He learned to read when it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write.
Douglass gave a speech at Lincoln’s funeral, and afterwards Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, gave Douglass Lincoln’s walking stick in acknowledgement of their friendship. It was passed down through the generations. When Morris brought it to school to show his classmates, he was sent to the principal’s office for “lying.” Morris’ mother later came to the school and set the principal straight.
Morris thought slavery had ended with the Abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation, but he later learned of the millions still living in slavery today.
He and his mother founded the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation to fight the human trafficking that is the hallmark of slavery today, and to preserve the legacy of Frederick Douglass.
On the Friday of Fathers Day weekend Morris ended his speech with this quote from Douglass:“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
For Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, one of the greatest in American history, go to: http://bit.ly/jnqlnJ
The dinner also honored the memory of former Macon County Sheriff and director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, Roger E. Walker Jr., who died in March. Walker was Illinois’ first African-American sheriff.
Alderman, City of Springfield