Douglass descendants moving legacy project to Rochester

Frederick Douglass, one of the most important figures in the nation’s history, spent 25 years here, continuing his abolitionist efforts, helping raise a family, meeting with women’s suffrage leaders, and founding his influential North Star newspaper. He bought property here, lived here, and chose to be buried here, in Mt. Hope Cemetery. And yet there is no museum dedicated to his life and works, no restored home serving as a continuing link to him, no physical base where people can learn more about him and look for ways to further his legacy.

Sometime within the year, though, that may begin to change. The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a nonprofit committed to carrying out the legacy of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, will leave its base in Atlanta and move to Rochester.

 

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Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives’ founders, from left, Robert Benz, Nettie Washington Douglass, and Kenneth Morris were in Rochester last week to participate in a celebration of Frederick Douglass’s life.

The Initiative’s three founders – Kenneth Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Douglass; his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass (who is a descendant of both Douglass and the influential educator Booker T. Washington), and Robert Benz, a longtime family friend – are looking for a location in Rochester. And while they’re not planning to create a museum, they do want a place where they can stage exhibits as well as hold forums, conferences, meetings, and lectures and continue their efforts in areas in which he devoted his adult life.

Benz will move from his home in Las Vegas to Rochester to lead the organization’s work here.

Morris, Douglass, and Benz were in Rochester last week as part of the two-day celebration of Douglass’s life. While they were here, they announced their decision to move the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives to Rochester. And during an interview with CITY, the three discussed their plans.

The Initiative’s site will be “a place to better understand who Douglass was,” Benz said. But it will also be a place to further the Initiative’s efforts in addressing contemporary issues, to educate and agitate and work for change.

Currently, the Initiatives’ principal focus is human trafficking, a form of slavery that continues to be a concern around the world, including in the United States. That’s been the focus since Morris, Benz, and Douglass founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives in 2007. The catalyst for their interest: a National Geographic article on contemporary slavery and human trafficking.

 

The issue seemed a natural one for descendants of Frederick Douglass to address. What concern would Frederick Douglass be involved with if he were alive today? “The obvious answer is human trafficking,” Benz said.

Morris and Benz also found that efforts related to human trafficking were “reactive,” helping the victims. No one was working on prevention, and that became the focus of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. The organization has developed a curriculum for schools and has launched programs to educate children and teachers: teaching them how to recognize and prevent human trafficking.

But, Morris said, “all of the social justice issues are intertwined.” And so, he said, “we’ve started to delve into other issues.” Among them: mass incarceration.

You can draw a direct line, Morris said, from slavery in the United States “through Jim Crow to mass incarceration.”

Expanding the FDFI’s mission is consistent with Douglass’s own experience. During his time in Ireland, the poverty and oppression he saw there influenced him heavily and contributed to his own broadening of interests to include women’s suffrage.

“We have always had in our minds that we would be an organization that was focused on more than just one issue,” Morris said.

The press release announcing the FDFI’s move to Rochester had emphasized the importance of bringing its work to the city in which Douglass had lived and worked. And it quoted Nettie Washington Douglass: “When I stand in this city that my great-great grandfather called home and chose as his final resting place, I realize that all Rochester residents are heir to his legacy and members of the Douglass family. Rochester is where his legacy will continue to live. I think together we can make great things happen here.”

The press release also quoted Benz as saying that the Initiative would address “specific challenges facing this community.” Morris, Douglass, and Benz will find plenty of “specific challenges” in Rochester, racism and criminal justice among them.

“We’re not coming in as the solution,” Morris said. But in whatever areas they become involved in, they’ll likely do the kinds of things they’ve already been doing out of their Atlanta base, they said.

For instance, as part of their celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, they’re working with American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center on a project they call the FD200, honoring 200 people who they believe are carrying out Douglass’s legacy in their own work.

The FDFI has worked with high school students to do webcasts on gun violence. It has worked with middle school students to do webcasts about education. And the organization’s efforts emphasize both education and service – not only teaching students but empowering them, educating them “and then encouraging them to agitate,” Benz said. Initiatives staff and partners help teach students about an important contemporary issue and then encourage them to attend local government meetings to press for legislation.

“We hope to raise a new generation of leaders,” Morris said.

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