He’d only just met the beautiful young woman, but Frederick Douglass III—great-grandson of the legendary abolitionist on his father’s side and grandson of Atlanta business mogul David T. Howard on his mother’s—was certain Nettie was going to be his wife. Until she told him her last name, that is. “Of all the women in all the world,” he lamented, or so the family story goes, “I had to fall in love with Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter.” He married her anyway.
A year later, their daughter was born: Nettie Washington Douglass, named for her mother and her famous ancestors, a name that bore the weight of the history she carried in her blood. Since before she can remember, people have approached Nettie with an almost holy reverence, awed by the titans of American history perched on the branches of her family tree. “People were always pinching my cheeks, picking me up and twirling me,” she told me. “I was swamped with affection and love, and I didn’t really understand why.”
It was a heavy legacy, freighted with the soaring triumphs and bitter disappointments of Black life in America. It weighed on her father, who took his own life before Nettie was born. Nettie’s mother tried to shield her from the stress, as Nettie did for her own children when she became a mother. But over time, Nettie has found her place in her family’s storied past, becoming a living testament to her ancestors and a voice for their tremendous impact on the world. Through the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an organization she founded with her son Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Nettie’s family connects Douglass’s abolitionism to today’s antitrafficking movement and distributes his writings to schools around the globe.
At a time when human freedoms are threatened all over the world, and when a divided country clashes over how to tell the history of America, Nettie’s remarkable ancestors still have stories to teach us about how we got here and where we are going. She just hopes we are ready to listen.
• • •
“The two ‘First Families’ of Afro-American History”
Nettie Washington Douglass is in her eighties today, but you wouldn’t guess it. She has lively hazel eyes and the delicate bone structure of a ballerina. When I saw a photo of her mother, I was struck by the resemblance.
After three decades in Atlanta, she retired from her job with the mayor’s community affairs office, and recently moved to Augusta with her son Douglass Morris and his family. I drove out to meet her there in October. Their new house was stunning, with high ceilings and a porch overlooking the Savannah River. The floor was stacked with moving boxes, but some decor had already been unpacked, including an ornately painted porcelain punch bowl and cups. “Oh, here, now this was Booker’s,” Nettie said, ushering me over to the bookshelf where they were displayed. She inspected a chipped cup with a sigh. “My grandmother left it with a cousin for safekeeping once, and some of the pieces broke.”
Booker T. Washington, David T. Howard, and Frederick Douglass all have sprawling family trees, but Nettie’s the one who united all their branches. She’s also the only living descendant to carry Douglass as her last name. She went by her married name, Morris, for a while, but after she got divorced, Nettie took back her birth name. “I’m a Washington Douglass,” she told me simply. “That’s who I am.”
Here’s how it happened: David T. Howard, born enslaved in Crawford County, Georgia, built a hugely successful undertaking business and became a pillar of Atlanta’s Black community. Howard and his wife, Ella, raised 10 children in a prosperous and happy home. They spent their summers on a farm Howard purchased north of the city, where Ella kept a legendary flower garden and the family raised vegetables, cows, and poultry.
It may have been at the farm where Fannie Howard, their seventh child, met Frederick Douglass, who came to Atlanta on a speaking tour and was picked up at the train station by a horse and carriage belonging to David T. Howard. She was a tiny child (and he was near the end of his life), but Fannie remembered the moment forever. “The man with the big white hair,” she called him, even long after she married his grandson.
Joseph Douglass was one of Frederick Douglass’s 21 grandchildren, all descendants of Frederick’s five children with his first wife, Anna Murray. By many accounts, Joseph was the favorite; he’s the only one known to appear in photographs with his grandfather, playing violin as Frederick watches approvingly. The great man, who escaped slavery at the age of 20, taught himself the instrument, and Joseph began his own classical training as a child. He attended Boston Conservatory and became the most famous Black violinist of his age, traveling internationally and performing for three successive presidents at the White House. He met Fannie at Oberlin College around 1913, when she accompanied him on the piano.
Joseph and Fannie had two children: Blanche, who tragically died of illness at 11 years old, and Frederick III, Nettie’s father. “I remember asking my grandmother, ‘Why did you name him Frederick Douglass the Third?’” Nettie told me. We were at lunch, and her hands fluttered above her plate as she talked about her father. “It just added so much pressure to his life.”
Frederick III was uncommonly bright, enrolling at the University of Vermont at the age of 16. While he was in medical school at Howard University, his father died of pneumonia, and, according to Nettie, Frederick blamed himself for his father’s death. “He was going to medical school to save lives, and he couldn’t save his own father,” she said.
In 1941, after completing his surgical training, Frederick took a job at Tuskegee’s Veterans Administration Hospital, the only hospital to serve Black veterans during World War II. Hospital staff usually ate at the cafeteria, but one day in August, Frederick decided to walk to the student dining center on campus. Along the way, he bumped into Nettie Washington, who was the daughter of Booker T. Washington Jr., eldest son of the famed educator. (Her mother was the first Nettie—Nettie One.) Nettie Two was a student at New York University but had come to Tuskegee on a lark to spend the summer with her cousins. She and Frederick fell in love immediately, in the chanciest of chance meetings.
“All my life, people have said, Oh, these marriages were planned, their relatives wanted their children to marry each other,” said their daughter, Nettie (Nettie Three). “But that’s what’s so amazing about these stories. If it hadn’t been for my mother deciding to spend a few weeks in Tuskegee, I would never have been born.”
Frederick and Nettie married at Booker T. Washington’s home in November 1941. The wedding made national headlines. “Two Distinguished Families United,” the Jackson Advocate announced. “The knot tied last week . . . joined the two ‘first families’ of Afro-American history,” crowed the California Eagle.
Nettie got pregnant shortly afterward. Then, on April 9, for reasons at once knowable and unknowable, Frederick committed suicide. Nettie Three was born the following October, her life marked already by triumph and tragedy. “I think he really suffered under the burden of it,” Nettie said. “Being Frederick Douglass III, carrying that legacy . . . he suffered.”
Nettie was told her father had died of natural causes; she discovered the truth as a preteen, when she overheard a visitor speaking with her grandmother. She never admitted to her grandmother what she’d learned. As with Nettie’s other larger-than-life ancestors, her father both did and did not exist: a person she’d never met, but whose legacy she carried in her blood, a shared history that distinguished them as remarkable, for better or for worse.
• • •
The Insistence of History
In the weathered newspaper photo, Nettie looks about three, wearing neat white socks and a bow in her hair. She’s watching as her uncle, Booker T. Washington III, shovels earth at a memorial planned for their famous ancestor. Public appearances like these were simply a part of her life, though as a young child, she scarcely understood what they meant.
“My mother would tell me, ‘Stand here,’ or ‘Smile at the camera,’” she explained. “I didn’t really know why people were taking pictures of me.” When family friends’ children were doing book reports, their parents would call her mother to see if Nettie could make a classroom appearance. “She would ask, ‘Is it for Washington or Douglass?’” laughed Nettie, who toured classrooms every year for Negro History Week, her mere existence a historical marvel, though it didn’t hurt that she was adorable.
“She’s been carrying this torch since she was a little girl,” said her son Kenneth. “And I know her stories, I know the weight she carried, being an only child—a lot of things that happened in her life were tragic, but she kept pushing on. I’m incredibly proud of her.”
Though public appearances were commonplace, Nettie’s family tried to give her a normal childhood. She grew up surrounded by love, doted on by her mother and grandmothers, who called her by her nickname, Honey. “My mother was always quick to tell me that I was special because I was me, Honey, not because of anyone I was related to,” she said. But still, she wondered: Why me? “I remember asking her, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’” Nettie recalled. “And my mother would say, ‘God chose you. When the time is right, He will let you know what you are to do.’”
After her first years in Tuskegee, where her mother worked at the airfield, the family moved to California. In the Golden State, everything was new, and no one seemed to care much about freighted family legacies. But in the summers, Nettie traveled back East to stay with her paternal grandmother, Fannie Douglass, in Highland Beach, Maryland, the summer resort community her great-grandfather Charles Douglass established in 1893. It was there, where history loomed large, that Nettie first began to forge her own relationship to her titanic ancestors.
The house Charles built for the family, which he named Twin Oaks, was designed by his father, Frederick Douglass. Frederick died before Twin Oaks was built, but the design bears his mark. He’d insisted on one feature in particular: a small second-story porch, carved from a tower, where you can see clean across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore of Maryland—the land where Douglass had once been enslaved.
“He wanted to be able to look back across the Bay from whence he came,” Nettie said. “I used to spend a lot of time up there, just gazing back across the Chesapeake, thinking about what went on there.” Growing up amongst Douglass’s things—his furniture, his books, his Stradivarius violin—Nettie found the threads that linked her life to his.
“He was an abandoned child,” Nettie said. “He knew his mother, but he only got to see her two or three times before she died.” She knew how it felt not to know a parent, and it made her feel closer to her great-great-grandfather. “We have a way of connecting, Frederick and I,” she explained.
Nettie attended Howard University, but left early and married a childhood friend, Kenneth B. Morris, whom she’d met in Highland Beach. They raised their three children in Walnut, California: Kenneth Jr., the eldest; Douglass, the youngest; and, in the middle, their daughter, Nettie Four. “Sometimes it felt like I had an already-perceived identity because I was ‘Nettie Number Four,’” said Nettie Douglass Johnson from her home in La Verne, California. “But as it turned out, I did not. I was able to become whoever I was going to be.”
As her mother had, Nettie Three tried to give her children a normal childhood, outside of their famous legacy. She sometimes visited classrooms to talk about Washington and Douglass, but overall the kids were like all the others on their block; most of their friends didn’t even know about their relations.
“As a boy, I never really embraced it,” Kenneth Jr. recalled. “I didn’t really understand the importance of what my ancestors had done.”
But Nettie’s children also spent their summers with family back East, where history had a way of inserting itself more insistently into the present. Nettie once found a six-month-old Douglass teething contentedly on a polished piece of wood; as she took it away, his great-grandmother Fannie Douglass laughed. “‘The boy has good taste,’” Nettie recalled her saying. “‘That’s Abraham Lincoln’s cane.’” Mary Todd Lincoln had given it to Frederick after Lincoln was assassinated, and it had been under a bed ever since.
Kenneth and his sister vividly remember a large charcoal portrait of Frederick in their great-grandmother’s Capitol Hill home, whose eyes seemed to follow them as they moved. Sometimes Kenneth swore he could even hear it speak: “I could hear him say, in this huge, booming voice, ‘You will do great things, young man!’” he recalled.
As they got older, Nettie’s children became more aware of the spotlight placed on them by their family tree. Douglass once went to a friend’s house as a teenager, where the friend introduced him to his grandfather and mentioned Douglass’s relations. “His grandfather got on his knees and said, ‘Oh, bless you, thank you for everything your family has done,’” Douglass remembered. “I think that was probably the first time it went from me viewing them as my great-great-great-grandparents to seeing how the rest of the world feels about them.”
Douglass attended Tuskegee Institute, the school founded by his great-great-grandfather, so of everyone in Nettie’s family, he has the closest connection to Washington. “It’s kind of interesting to be in a family where Booker T. Washington is the side note,” he said with a laugh. The two great men knew each other: Frederick Douglass delivered the commencement address at Tuskegee in 1892, and a photo from that day is believed to show them together.
Douglass adored his years at Tuskegee, where he studied computer science, but kept his legacy quiet while he was there. “My family never put pressure on me,” he said. “But I put pressure on myself not to do anything stupid or let him down.”
I asked Douglass what he thought his ancestors would make of the joining of their families. “I’d like to think they would just be sitting back having a good time,” he replied. “Just laughing and saying, Man, would you look at this?”
• • •
A Legacy Fit for the 21st Century
After the three siblings grew up, the family’s legacy remained somewhat dormant. Kenneth, Douglass, and Nettie Four built their own families and careers. Nettie had divorced their father and moved to Atlanta—drawn in part to its celebration of her family’s legacy: “It was the only city with three high schools named after my family!” she said.
She still gave the occasional presentation about her ancestors, but by and large, the relationship she and her children had to their legacy was more of a personal affair. “I was decisively disengaged from my family’s story,” said Kenneth, “until providence called in 2005.”
Providence rang him via an old issue of National Geographic. Kenneth picked up the magazine while his daughters, then aged 12 and 9, got ready for bed upstairs. “The cover said, ‘Twenty-First Century Slavery,’” he recalled. “It was an article about human trafficking.” As he read about girls being forced into sexual slavery, he could hear his own daughters laughing and bickering while they brushed their teeth. “I remember thinking, That’s what young kids should be doing, getting tucked safely into bed, not being forced into bed.” Suddenly, the freedom fight of his ancestors’ past seemed overwhelmingly close to the present.
“I understood this platform they had built through struggle, and I had really done nothing with it, just wasted it,” Kenneth said. “I thought, what if we could leverage the historical significance of our ancestry to do something about the issue?” In 2007, he and his mother launched the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. (Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are both listed as directors emeriti of the organization, but Kenneth told me they focused on Douglass because relatives were already running various Booker T. Washington family projects.)
Today, FDFI runs a suite of programming focused on human rights and antiracism. Its PROTECT curriculum, which teaches K–12 students and educators how to flag and prevent human trafficking, has been taught in schools across six states. Through One Million Abolitionists, FDFI is distributing copies of Douglass’s memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to schools around the world (with a goal of distributing a million copies). FDFI has also partnered with Forefront Books to launch Frederick Douglass Books, a publishing imprint that elevates writers of color.
FDFI recently moved to Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass lived and ran his newspaper, The North Star, for years. It is home to the Frederick Douglass Monument, unveiled in 1899, the first statue ever dedicated to a Black American.
“Douglass left an enduring legacy that Rochester has embraced,” said Rochester Mayor Malik Evans, who grew up on a street where Douglass once maintained a family home. “His legacy is a reminder of our past history of the fight for freedom, and we’re proud to have the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives based here.”
The organization is planning a museum along the Genesee River, which will house some of the family’s personal archive and highlight not just Frederick’s story but also that of Anna Murray and their five children.
Kenneth, who is FDFI’s president, noted that Douglass’s own family was instrumental in furthering his legacy. “His kids were sitting on stools typesetting for their father’s newspaper when they were so small their feet didn’t touch the floor,” said Kenneth. He calls FDFI’s work an intergenerational freedom-fighting collective, one that knits the modern branches of the family to those of a hundred years ago.
“Kenneth and Nettie are working in the centuries-long tradition of the Anna Murray and Frederick Douglass family,” said Celeste-Marie Bernier, a professor of U.S. and Atlantic studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who has written extensively on the larger Douglass family. Like their ancestors did yesterday, she said, “They are working fearlessly and tirelessly for revolutionary change globally today.”
In some ways, it’s a sorrowful fact that Douglass’s message still resonates so powerfully. Not only are there three times as many people enslaved today as during the transatlantic slave trade era, but according to the Human Freedom Index, human rights are eroding worldwide. In the United States, free speech is under threat as school districts ban thousands of books about racism, history, and gender diversity. In 2022, Edmond Public Schools in Oklahoma added Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to its banned-book list.
“History tends to repeat itself,” said Nettie. “I used to think of that as a good thing, but so often we are repeating the wrong thing.” She mentioned a story from Douglass’s memoir, when the man to whom he was enslaved found his wife teaching the young Douglass to read. “‘You can’t teach him to read—it will make him forever unfit to be a slave,’” Nettie said he told his wife. “And the lightbulb went off in [Douglass’s] head, and that’s exactly what he set out to do.” She hopes young people today approach censorship with the same kind of curiosity: “If it’s something they’re hiding, that they don’t want you to know, you must seek that out.”
Nettie now serves as chairwoman emerita. Through the Family Initiatives, she’s found her place in the family’s storied legacy, her voice a conduit through the past to the present. “My mother told me, ‘God chose you for this ancestry, and He will let you know what to do with it,’” she said. “I’m convinced that’s what we’re doing here with the Family Initiatives.”
But, while she travels the world to share Douglass’s legacy, her relationship with her famous forefather remains as personal as ever. “I grew up surrounded by his things,” she told me. “He was always alive to me.” She still talks to him frequently, especially before she shares their family’s story, to ask for his permission and support.
In 2013, the District of Columbia gifted a statue of Frederick Douglass to the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, and Nettie was invited to speak at the dedication. It was the largest event she’d ever done, in front of then vice president Biden and dozens of members of Congress. She was petrified. As she walked up the hill to the Capitol building, she told me, she consulted Frederick Douglass, whose name she shares, whose blood flows in hers. “I said to him, ‘I’ve done a lot of things for you, but this one is big. And I need you to give me a sign that you are with me.’”
She declined to tell me what it was—family secrets, after all—but her great-great-grandfather sent her the sign she’d asked for. She smiled, watching the sun break over the Capitol Dome.
“Okay, Fred,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.