MICHEL M, Host:
Mr. Morris, thank you so much for joining us.
KENNETH B: Hi, Michel. Thank you so much for having me on.
MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, you really did not know very much about this ancestor before you started this project. You'd seen a picture of him, for example.
MORRIS: Yeah, that's correct. In fact, you know, I am the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass. So when I was coming up, most people naturally always wanted to know about Frederick Douglass and that connection. And I descend through Frederick Douglass's youngest son, Charles. And Lewis is Frederick Douglass's oldest son. So he's on another tree, on another line. So I never really thought that much about him, and I'd only seen an old photograph of him in his war uniform. And I knew that he was a sergeant-major in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, but I really didn't know much beyond that.
MARTIN: What are some of the things that Dr. Evans showed you?
MORRIS: Well, Dr. Evans is located in Savannah, Georgia. And I'd been hearing about his collection for about three years. So I was really excited to have an opportunity to go down and to take a look at it. And some of the things that he revealed to me, which were very interesting, were letters that Lewis had written to his then-fiancee, Amelia. And he was talking about his life as a soldier, and that they were getting ready to go into battle.
M: If I should die, I hope that I fall with my face to the foe. And through these documents and these photographs, I was able to get a connection to him that I hadn't previously had.
MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip. And I think this is Dr. Evans, I believe, reading one of the letters that Lewis Douglass sent to his fiancee, Amelia. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CIVIL WARRIORS")
WALTER EVANS: (Reading) My dear girl, while I am away, do not fret yourself to death. Oh, I beg of you, do not. Remember that if I fall, that it is in the cause of humanity that I am striking a blow for the welfare of the most abused and despised race on the face of the Earth. My dear girl, I am sorry I did not bring your photograph with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
EVANS: (Reading) I shall send you the mine, as I am now a soldier, which you will keep. I trust you will never be ashamed of.
MARTIN: What was your reaction when you heard those words?
MORRIS: My first reaction was that he was definitely a man that was deeply in love, and those were love letters, in way. And, you know, I've been married for 27 years, and I'm not sure that I ever wrote...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORRIS: ...such a sentimental letter to my wife in all of those years. But I was really just moved by just the passion in the letters. And again, you know, it was the first time that I had heard that. And really, that was the first time that I heard Lewis' words really coming to life. So it was very moving.
MARTIN: I know. Maybe your wife will be getting one of those letters from - now. It does kind of set a standard, doesn't it? No pressure there.
MORRIS: Yeah. I think you're putting the pressure on me here. So I need to start putting pen to paper right now.
MARTIN: And through your ancestor we also learn a bit about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which I think many people will at least have heard of - people who are familiar with the movie "Glory," or who have visited the portrait in the National Gallery in Washington that also depicts this regiment. But for those who may not know about it, can you just tell us a little bit about what you learned also about the 54th?
MORRIS: And it was really interesting. As I went through this whole experience - because I had always known that enslaved black men took up arms, but I never really stopped to think that freed blacks. Now, here you have Lewis, the son of Frederick Douglass, who lived in this prominent family, and to think that he would actually risk his life and his own freedom to fight for this cause, it really - it says a lot about what they were fighting for, and they knew what they were fighting for.
MARTIN: I just want to play another short clip from another letter, you know, that he wrote, that references something you talked about earlier, is his desire that if he were to die, that he die courageously. And here is that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CIVIL WARRIORS")
MORRIS: How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. My dear girl, I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember, if I die, I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops. We would put an end to this war.
MARTIN: That's very poignant. Very poignant words. What do you think this project meant to you when all is said and done, when you had a - going through and reliving the lives of these ancestors, revisiting what their lives had been - what you think it meant to you?
MORRIS: This experience really opened my eyes to the struggles our ancestors lived and died for so that we all can enjoy the freedoms that we have today. And the experience drove me to the very core of why I do what I do in my job every day. We have a family foundation called the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, and every day I tackle the issue of human trafficking and modern- day slavery. And really what we do is we are continuing Frederick Douglass's fight for people to live free. And this is something that just moved me profoundly, and it really got me thinking about the struggles that our ancestors went through and that we stand on their shoulders.
M: When I stopped to think that hands that actually touched the great Frederick Douglass and hands that touched mine, I can say I stand just one person removed from history, and this whole experience and this whole journey just really made me just think about the struggles and everything that our ancestors went through.
MARTIN: What do you think people might draw from this documentary who are not related to any of the people depicted in it? For example, your ancestors were quite accomplished and famous people, but many people are not and they don't have necessarily the ability to go and trace their stories in the way that you were, you know, able to do. What do you think that they might draw from it?
MORRIS: And the other stories that are depicted in this documentary, they're all unsung heroes. They're not people that you would've heard of. Lewis Douglas is probably the person that if you heard of anybody, he would be the person. So these are all great stories and the descendents that follow in the footsteps of their ancestors are learning such wonderful things about their ancestors. And I hope that people will take away from this documentary that they have these stories in their families, if they would just take the time to research them and to find out about them.
MARTIN: Mr. Morris, thank you so much for joining us.
MORRIS: Michel, thank you very much for having me on.
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