Descendant backs renaming of school

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The leader of a Frederick Douglass legacy group said if Elm City Elementary was named for Frederick Douglass when it was built in 1939, then the name should be changed back.

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, said his group would support the effort by the Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association to have the school again carry the name of the noted African-American.

Morris, a third great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, contacted the Times after a story ran on the renaming proposal.

“Anything that has to do with the life and legacy and carrying on his legacy and introducing his work to the next generation of leaders and the next generation of young people I thought would be great for the family to put our support behind the effort because, obviously, if the school was named for our great ancestor at one point in time, it should be renamed back,” Morris said. “I just wanted to offer any kind of support that the family could offer in the efforts that they were doing.”

Frederick Douglass High School was established in 1939 and operated as a school for the African-American population in Elm City until 1969.

The school was renamed Elm City Elementary School when, in 1970, the Elm City schools merged with Wilson County schools to meet requirements of court-ordered integration.

Today, on what is now the side of Elm City Elementary School along W. Wilson Street, there is a sign noting “Site of Frederick Douglass High School 1939-1969.”

Inside the auditorium, which is part of the original structure, the royal blue curtains on the stage are from Frederick Douglass High School. The wooden podium has inscribed “Class of 1952.”

Parts of the school have been rebuilt, but the gymnasium building is part of the original school.

The wood floors are showing wear, years after the Frederick Douglass High School men’s basketball team played on the way to state championships in 1962, 1964 and 1966.

“It’s used for gym every single day,” said Principal Claudia Spencer.


The effort to return the Elm City school to its original namesake goes back decades.

In the March 12, 1976, edition of The Wilson Daily Times, the Frederick Douglass High School Alumni Association requested that the elementary school in the community be again named for Douglass.

Several schools, parks, streets, bridges, parks and neighborhoods have been named for Douglass in several states.

Within the past year Morris said a park in Nashville, Tennessee, which had been Fred Douglas Park, was renamed Frederick Douglass Park.

Morris said that Frederick Douglass’s bicentennial celebration will happen in February of next year.

“We launched a project at the Library of Congress in 2018 where we printed a special bicentennial edition of his narrative, and we are working to give away 1 million copies of that out to young people across the country by the end of 2018, the bicentennial year,” Morris said. “I have been really busy since we launched this project because it has resonated.”

Morris recently named to the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission.

“Usually people are very receptive to wanting to talk about Frederick Douglass because he is a true American hero, and he is an example of somebody that had been born into slavery, never spent one day of his life in a classroom, yet, through all of that, he was able to rise up, teach himself to read and write and then go on to positively affect change in the lives of millions of people,” Morris said.

“He learned to read and write over the objections of his overseers. He escaped slavery and then went onto become the first African-American ever nominated for vice president of the United States, the leader of the abolitionist movement and so on and so forth.”

Morris has been traveling across the country at book giveaway events and meeting with people regarding the bicentennial.

“I can say that because I am his descendant, I am really in a unique position to talk about his work and that may be one of the reasons why I don’t get push back,” Morris said. “Maybe if I was some one else who was just trying to talk about him to advance their agendas, and really leveraging his legacy, then maybe that would be different.”


Amber Lynch, public relations director for Wilson County Schools, confirmed Thursday that the Wilson County Board of Education would place the matter on the agenda for discussion at an upcoming meeting.

According to Wilson County Board of Education policy code regarding the naming of facilities, renaming an existing facility will require a unanimous vote of the full seven-member board.

Policy permits school facilities to be named for state and national figures. Nominations for naming facilities can originate with individuals or groups.