Ancestor of black icons is thankful
As Nettie Washington Douglass watched Barack Obama win the presidency last year, she couldn't help but offer a few words of thanks to two ancestors who helped lay the seeds for that seminal moment.
Douglass, 66, is a direct descendant of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass and revered educator and author Booker T. Washington, two of the most iconic black activists in the nation's history.
She told a crowd gathered for the fourth Island Heritage Celebration on Saturday that she felt a special pride in her ancestors' contributions as she watched the nation choose a highly educated and gifted orator to be its first black chief executive.
"I was speechless. It was almost like I was in a dream," she said. "The first thing I thought of was Frederick Douglass. I said 'This is what you gave your life to.' "
The large crowd at the College of Charleston's Stern Center applauded her words and her efforts to preserve the work of her famous relatives and ensure its relevance today.
As various speakers told the audience, both men would be on a Mount Rushmore for black leaders if it existed.
As a child growing up in California, Nettie Washington Douglass didn't fully realize the powerful blood she carries in her veins.
Her mother tried to keep it that way.
Her mother was the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, a former slave who fought for black education and self-sufficiency and established the famed Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1881.
Her father was the great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who spent his life fighting for freedom and equality.
Her parents met at Tuskegee and married soon after, uniting the two famous bloodlines. Her father, Frederick Douglass III, committed suicide before Nettie was born, and her mother long thought the weight of his name and lineage was too much for him to live up to.
Her mother was determined that young Nettie would have a normal childhood.
When people asked what she was going to do when she grew up or how she would follow in their footsteps, her mother would often answer for her. "She would say, 'She doesn't have big shoes to fill, she only has her shoes to fill,' " said Washington Douglass, who now lives in Atlanta.
Still, there were special moments, such as when she was flown to San Francisco at age 8 to present New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio with the first Booker T. Washington memorial half-dollar.
She learned more about her ancestors' contributions as she grew older, and her mother finally confided in her just how special she was to share the blood of both men.
She embraced that legacy whole-heartedly and now speaks around the country about her relatives' accomplishments. She also is taking their work forward by fighting to end slavery across the world.
In 2007, she and her family founded the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation to fight human trafficking around the globe.
She told the Charleston crowd that the threat is very real, whether it be in the form of a 60-year-old Indian man still working to pay off the debt of his grandfather or a 13-year-old runaway in Atlanta being pimped for sexual favors.
The foundation is working this year to increase awareness of the problem through the 60th anniversary of International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Dec. 2.
"Each one of us is born with the right to live free," she said.