It was August 1941 and the menacing shadow of World War II, which had already eclipsed much of the world, now threatened America. Hitler rolled across the whole of Europe and down into North Africa while Japan was invading China. A sense of fear and uncertainty was mounting steadily on this side of the Atlantic as well. For one auspicious moment, however, on a balmy Alabama afternoon, an unanticipated light of providence shined brightly on the campus of Tuskegee Institute.
She was Nettie Hancock Washington, granddaughter of the Great Educator and the Institute's founder, Booker T. Washington. Her smile was more like that of a Hollywood starlet. She was back home at Tuskegee visiting from California.
Nettie Hancock Washington, Josephine Baker, Nettie (Honey) Washington Douglass
He was as handsome as he was brilliant with a pedigree to match. Frederick Douglass III by name, he was the great grandson and namesake of the famed abolitionist, journalist and orator. He had been commissioned as a surgeon by the Veterans Administration to serve at Tuskegee during the war. Now, walking across campus, on course for what could be termed an impossibly random celestial event, he -- deep in thought, stroking his Clark Gable mustache, she -- in a hurry to connect with old friends, they -- the progeny of two of America's most influential leaders... collided. Frederick and Nettie fell in love instantly.
Unfortunately, this is not a story of romantic love, but a love defined by a mother's strength. Frederick and Nettie were married three months after they met. And, when Nettie was three months pregnant with the couple's first and only child, Frederick took his own life, perhaps, due to the profound burden of having to earn his famous name. We'll never know for sure.
The child, Nettie Washington Douglass, was born fatherless but nurtured with love, devotion and determination on the part of three amazing women: her mother, her mother's mother, also named Nettie Hancock Washington, and her paternal grandmother, Fannie Howard Douglass. Together, they all did their best to make up for that which had been lost.
"I get my name from two great American men, but I have been defined by the strong women in my life." says Ms. Douglass. "It's fairly well known that Frederick Douglass was one of the first and most influential male supporters of the Women's Rights movement, but, what a lot of people don't know is that, without his wife -- my great-great grandmother, Anna Murray-Douglass -- the world may never have known Frederick Douglass. She not only encouraged but she funded his escape from slavery. She also raised their five children mostly on her own as her husband traveled the world with his message of abolition. It goes to show that history, in many ways, has also been defined by strong women."
Anna Murray Douglass
Ms. Douglass is now Chairwoman for the Atlanta-based public charity, the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. The organization celebrates the legacies of her famous ancestors and works to end contemporary forms of human trafficking and modern-day slavery both in the United States and abroad.
"Frederick Douglass fought a lifetime for his own freedom and for the freedom of others," Ms. Douglass continues. "With millions around the world living in one form of bondage or another his work is not finished. What tears at my heart is that the largest numbers of those being exploited for sex and for labor are girls and women. Today's slave owners prey on the most vulnerable among us. As a mother, a grandmother and as a woman, I'm sickened by the rape, exploitation and violence against girls and women by johns, traffickers and corporate profiteers as well as the indifference of good people that allow it to happen. "
Citing the urgency to rid communities of human trafficking-related crimes, Ms. Douglass is challenging women everywhere to join her in an anti-trafficking revolution this fall.
"Women must stand up for women. We must speak out for girls that are being broken. Start by sending me a single paragraph from you or your organization and I will assemble them so that we are all heard as one voice."
Sharon Fisher, President of Soroptimist International of the Americas, responded with this paragraph as a simple yet powerful first step:
As an organization working for almost 90 years to improve the lives of women and girls, Soroptimist vehemently denounces the heinous crimes of sex trafficking and prostitution. Both trafficking and prostitution find their roots in gender inequality, which allows demand to flourish in the belief that there is no harm in purchasing the bodies of women and girls. The first step to ending trafficking and prostitution is to change society's views about the value of women and girls, and to end the demand. The second is to ensure that women and girls are educated and have choices where their own futures are concerned. Trafficking and prostitution constitute modern day slavery. We must do everything possible to end these demeaning, violent, horrible crimes.
Gloria Allred, Discrimination Attorney, Feminist Lawyer, also adds:
Advocating for the rights of women has been a focus of my career. I recently represented a victim of sex trafficking who was a minor. She found that the scales of justice were weighted on the side of the perpetrators. Human trafficking victims deserve support and so I lend my voice to the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation and their campaign to prevent this crime.
Very few little girls are lucky enough to be born into famous and loving families like Nettie Washington Douglass. Every little girl, however, is equally as precious and must be protected, if not by loving parents, by her community, her state or the laws of her nation. When she's not being protected, it's time to demand change.
Join Ms. Douglass, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Allred by sending your paragraph to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Robert Benz on Twitter @DouglassFamily