‘Let’s keep this history alive’: VP Kamala Harris honors families of civil rights activists in historic gathering for Black History Month

Descendants of Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and more attended a White House ceremony to honor their families’ legacy and impact on the country.

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Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at White House Black History Descendants day event.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at White House Black History Descendants day event. (Carmen Russell-Sluchansky/WHYY)

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The White House opened its doors to the descendants of some of America’s most iconic and heroic Black Americans in mid-February. As the room filled with Black journalists who were invited to cover the momentous event, relatives of prominent civil rights activists and historic changemakers began to file in one by one. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Black person to serve in that role, surprised the crowd as she spoke from the podium.

“When I look at this room of leaders, we have here the ancestors who have taken the mantle that is part of your DNA, literally, to continue in a role of leadership in our country,” said Harris.

Harris shared that the White House’s invitation to the descendants is in part a recognition of their ancestors’ importance in American history.

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“The folks that are here that are representing these extraordinary American heroes represent individuals who really believed in the promise of America, had a level of faith and sincere belief in the words written in the constitution of the United States of America,” said Harris.

The lives and work of the activists being honored span from the 18th century to the 20th century. They endured abuse, racism, hate and even death in their fight for justice.

In attendance were Attallah “Ambassador” Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, Congressman Jonathan Jackson and his sister Ashley Jackson, who are the children of Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Both their fathers fought for civil and human rights for Black American communities. Malcom X was a Muslim leader with the Nation of Islam and a prominent figure during the civil rights movement. He was also a vocal advocate for Black empowerment before his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965.

Roderick Giles and Grace choir perform at White House Black History Descendants day event.
Roderick Giles and Grace choir perform at White House Black History Descendants day event. (Carmen Rusell-Sluchansky/WHYY)

Jackson, a protege of Martin Luther King Jr., is also a civil rights leader and activist known for his slogan “Keep Hope Alive.” In 1984, he became the second African American to mount a nationwide campaign for president of the United States.

For Kenneth Morris Jr. the bloodline reaches further. Morris Jr. is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, and also the great-great grandson of author and founder of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington. His mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, united their bloodlines through the union of her parents.

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Morris helped coordinate the event with the White House Office of Public Engagement and spoke about the significance of his dual lineage with the audience.

“In a sense even with all those greats, I can say I stand one person away from each man, one person away from history and one person away from slavery,” Morris said.

Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved orator and writer, was undoubtedly one of the most important leaders of the movement to end American chattel slavery. Morris spoke to the crowd about what it was like to have a relative who touched the hands of greatness.

“The hands that touched the great Frederick Douglass, and hands that touched the great Booker T. Washington, also touched mine,” said Morris.

Morris, hopes to continue in his ancestors’ footsteps, and discussed his work to educate children across the country through providing books with the organization he co-founded, named the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives.

Harris also emphasized the importance of historical preservation and put a spotlight on the conversation regarding race and education, pointing out that the ceremony is a reminder that Black history should never be erased nor forgotten.

“There is so much that is happening in our country and in the world right now that I think challenges us all to ask what kind of country we want to live in. And in order to adequately and effectively answer that question, I think it’s imperative that we understand where we came from, and understand where we are and where we must go,” said Harris.

Harris also stressed the importance of honoring Black leaders’ achievements and sacrifices as she made it clear that the Biden administration will work to preserve education about Black history so that it is not altered or erased.

Harris has been vocal about the banning of books and censorship of teaching Black history in some states.

“Let’s keep this history alive, especially in the face of those who would attempt to edit it or rewrite it, according to their view of what the world is or should be. Let’s continue to celebrate our heroes in a way that is true to them which means speaks truth,” she said.

Harris shared that though the ancestors’ impact will be felt for generations, she and the people in the room have a duty to carry the torch and “continue to carry on their legacy through our deeds…our words and our actions. They’ve passed the baton to us,” Harris said.

The descendants of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, along with the cousin of tortured and murdered child Emmitt Till were also honored.

Other attendees who spoke include OPE Director Stephen Benjamin and Brenda Mallory, the first African-American woman to be sworn in as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Also present were Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Steven Horsford and Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell, who is the first woman elected to Congress from Alabama and first Black woman to ever serve in the Alabama Congressional delegation.

Benjamin and officials highlighted Harris and Biden’s commitment to advancing civil rights, racial diversity and opportunities for Black Americans.

President Biden did not attend the event; other descendants were invited but could not attend due to schedule conflicts. The event took years to plan and was one in a series of events celebrating Black History Month at the White House.

Full list of descendants in attendance:

  • Kenneth B. Morris Jr., descendant of Frederick Douglass and  president of theFrederick Douglass Family Initiatives
  • Michelle Duster, descendant of Ida B. Wells, author, “Voice of Truth”
  • Ernestine Wyatt, descendant of Harriet Tubman, artist
  • Sheila McCauley Keys, descendant of Rosa Parks, author, “Our Auntie Rosa”
  • Marvel and Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., cousin of Emmett Till, president, Preserve Roberts Temple
  • Attallah “Ambassador” Shabazz, descendant of Malcolm X
  • Madison Lanier, greatx6 granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
  • Shannon Lanier, greatx6 grandson of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
  • Carter Lanier, son of Shannon Lanier (greatx6 grandson of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings)
  • Chandra Lanier, wife of Shannon Lanier (greatx6 grandson of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings)
  • Jonathan Jackson, congressman and son of Jesse Jackson
  • Ashley Jackson, Reverend 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

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