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White House Celebrates Descendants of Iconic Civil Rights Leaders for Black History Month

The White House united family members of prominent Black leaders, fostering a dialogue on the nation’s past and its implications for the future.

Kenneth B. Morris Jr. (fourth from left) and his mother, Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter Nettie Washington Douglass (fifth from left), outside of the West Wing with their family on Feb. 13. (Photo by Folly Kouevi/The Hilltop)

Fulfilling an event nearly 20 years in the making, the White House’s Office of Public Engagement (OPE) commemorated more than 100 descendants of civil rights leaders and activists on Feb. 13 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. 

Among the descendants were family members of prominent Black figures in history, including the families of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, Jesse Jackson, Emmett Till, Malcolm X and Harry Belafonte. This gathering marked the first time some of these families convened in the same room, representing a poignant moment of heritage and legacy.

The families were joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including its chairman, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nevada. Other members of the Caucus present included Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama., Lucy McBath, D-Georgia., Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois., Jonathan Jackson, D-Illionois., Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, Joe Neguse, D-Colorado. and Troy Carter, D-Louisana., along with other Biden-Harris administration officials.

Vice President Kamala Harris greeted the family members of these historic figures acknowledging the significance of their linages. “There’s so much happening in our country and in the world right now that I think challenges us all to ask, ‘What kind of country do we want to live in?’,” Harris said. 

“To adequately answer that question, I think it is imperative to understand where we are and came from,” Harris said. 

Vice President Harris called the descendants’ ancestors “extraordinary American heroes” who “believed in the promise of America” and had a “level of faith and sincere belief in the words written in the Constitution of the United States of America.” 

Harris commented on the responsibility and obligation of leaders to “continue to carry on their legacy through our deeds…our words and our actions.”

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“They’ve passed the baton to us,” Harris said. “Let’s keep this history alive, especially in the face of those who would attempt to edit it out.”

Vice President Kamala Harris addresses a group of Black history descendants and family members at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Feb. 13. (Juan Benn Jr./The Hilltop)

The convening of descendants of historical Black figures came at a time of reckoning for race relations in America and following the legal suppression of diversity, school districts’ book banning and the overturning of affirmative action in college admissions.  

Brooklyn King is a graduating senior and English major and secondary education minor at Howard University, who believes that the families gathering at the White House was tremendous. 

“Their ancestors are such historical figures in the Black community, and their work has impacted us to this day.  Coming together is not only a fellowship to reflect on what their ancestors have done, but to continue their legacy for the current state of the Black community,” King said.  

As an educator, King believes her role and the descendants’ roles are similar in preserving the history and culture of Black history for future generations. 

“​​We live in a technological age where there’s so much stuff happening quickly and we just forget things so fast,” King said. “With them coming to the White House, it allows people to remember that this happened.”

Stephen K. Benjamin, Director of the Office of Public Engagement within the White House, followed shortly after Harris and discussed the accomplishments and policies of the Biden-Harris administration.

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Stephen Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House on Feb. 13, 2024, delivered a speech to the families and descendants. (Photo by Juan Benn Jr./The Hilltop)

Benjamin highlighted some of the administration’s initiatives, including providing an estimated 5.5 million Black households with affordable internet,  an executive order on police accountability and the establishment of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. 

“The president and the vice president are both committed to honoring the legacy of change-makers and your families, not just in his words, but by the work of this administration and the vision for America,” Benjamin said. 

King says that she also feels conflicted about the Biden administration bringing the family to the White House.

“While we can reflect on the fact that they came together, I think it’s a bit performative for the administration to bring the family to the White House. I don’t feel like Biden is doing enough currently for us as Black people,” King said.

President Joe Biden notably did not attend the historic event. The Biden campaign recently unveiled a new series of advertisements showcasing Biden’s dedication to Black Americans following a recent Gallup poll indicating that Black and Hispanic voters are defecting from the Democratic Party.

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, was the final speaker. Morris is the president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), an abolitionist and anti-racist non-profit organization based in Rochester, New York. 

His mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, was the person who united the bloodlines of the Douglass and Washington families through the union of her parents. Morris and his mother started the FDFI in 2007. 

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Morris referenced his childhood memories with his great-grandmother, Fannie Douglass, as she recounted stories of “the man with the great big white hair.” He emphasized that the ​​importance of being celebrated by the White House cannot be understated. 

Kenneth B. Morris Jr. descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington delivers a speech to other members of the Descendants on Feb. 13, 2024. (Photo by Juan Benn Jr./The Hilltop)

“This historic event marks the beginning of coalescing the descendants’ families and like-minded leaders and organizations to catalyze transformative positive societal change amongst the significant challenges faced by our country,” Morris said. ​​”As descendants, we have the responsibility to finish what our ancestors started.”

Morris mentioned that one of the ideas they had for an initiative was bringing together descendants of iconic civil rights leaders and freedom fighters to leverage the historical significance of their work and issues they were concerned about. He also discussed the importance of combating the suppression of Black history in classrooms. 

“We need to teach the truth, true history.  People [usually] want to talk about reconciliation and healing. I don’t believe that we can jump that far ahead if we haven’t had a reckoning of our past,” Morris said. 

Referencing a quote from Douglass, he mentioned “‘Without struggle, there is no progress’ and we have an obligation, by birthright to continue that fight and ensure that we’re making a better place for our descendants,” Morris said. 

“We need to know where we come from to know where we’re headed,” Morris said. 

Congressional Black Caucus members Rep. Troy Carter, Rep. Steven Horsford and Rep. Lauren Underwood on Feb. 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C., honoring the descendants of historically important Black figures. (Photo by Juan Benn Jr./The Hilltop)

Below are the names of other descendants, family members:  

  • Michelle Duster, author of “Voice of Truth” and descendant of Ida B. Wells 
  • Ernestine Wyatt, artist and descendant of Harriet Tubman 
  • Sheila McCauley Keys, author of “Our Auntie Rosa” and descendant of Rosa Parks 
  • Marvel and the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., cousin of Emmett Till and president of Preserve Roberts Temple
  • Attallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X
  • Madison Lanier, great (x6) granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings
  • Shannon Lanier, great (x6) grandson of President Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings
  • Carter Lanier, son of Shannon Lanier 
  • Chandra Lanier, wife of Shannon Lanier 
  • Jonathan Jackson, congressman and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson
  • Ashley Jackson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s daughter
  • Dan Duster, great-grandson of Ida B. Wells
  • Nettie Washington Douglass, Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter 
  • Douglass Washington Morris, III, Nettie Washington Douglass’ grandson

Copy edited by D’ara Campbell

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