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Historic White House gathering celebrates descendants of Civil Rights icons

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to the descendants of some of the most influential civil rights leaders in the US. (photo courtesy of Rep. Terri Sewell).

In a Black History Month event at the White House on Feb. 13, Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the descendants of some of the most influential civil rights leaders from the 1950s and ’60s, along with other foundational historical figures. The gathering marked the first time many of those families convened in the same room.

Prominent figures such as Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman; Booker T. Washington; Ida B. Wells; Malcolm X; Rosa Parks; Emmett Till; and Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings were scheduled to attend.

Harris praised the descendants as “extraordinary American heroes” who embody the promise of the nation and the Constitution. “They’ve passed the baton to us,” Harris said during her address.

Stephen K. Benjamin, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, outlined the administration’s initiatives, including an executive order related to police accountability and President Joe Biden’s signing of the law establishing ‘Juneteenth’ as a federal holiday.

The group, known as ‘The Descendants,’ gathered to pay homage to their familial legacies in celebration of Black History Month. One of the coordinators, Joshua Jordison, revealed that discussions to bring this diverse group together began several years ago. “It was amazing that many of them had never met,” he said.

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) enjoys the program during the White House Black History Month Celebration with the descendants of historical Black figures (photo courtesy of Rep. Terri Sewell).

While invitations were extended to other notable families, some could not attend due to scheduling conflicts and other factors. According to Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. a descendant of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, the goal of The Descendants is to lead the nation in a spirit of collaboration and community.

“This historic event marks the beginning of coalescing The Descendants’ families and like-minded leaders and organizations to catalyze transformative positive societal change amongst the most significant challenges faced by our country,” Morris said.

Beyond the White House reception, a series of activities were planned for the descendant families in Washington on both Tuesday and Wednesday. The itinerary included stops at the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, and a tour of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Additionally, there were dinners and opportunities for group dialogue.

Ernestine ‘Tina’ Martin Wyatt, a great-great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman, was among those to express excitement about meeting the descendants of fellow freedom fighters. “It’s an equal collaboration. We are all coming together,” Morris said.

Nearly 100 other guests, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus and administration officials, attended the event. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), a featured speaker, commended the families for their personal sacrifices and tireless work to preserve and protect their ancestors’ legacies. “At a time when our fundamental freedoms are once again under attack, we are grateful to President Biden not only for convening this event but for his commitment to furthering the progress that our foremothers and forefathers fought and died to achieve,” Sewell said.

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