By BROOKE WANSER
Robin Hood was waiting for Kevin Greene when he entered the First Missionary Baptist Church in Franklin on Friday morning.
Hood had a gift for Greene, and a story to share.
Greene, the great-great grandson of famed abolitionist, author and orator Frederick Douglass, came to the church as part of the African-American Heritage Society’s “Porch Talk” series to speak about Douglass’ history and the impact it has had on his life.
Hood, the owner of local publishing company Grandin Hood, wanted to share with Greene the ties that bind them: his own great-great-great grandfather was the Reverend Orson Murray, a prominent activist in the early anti-slavery movement who became friends with Douglass through setting up his speaking engagements on the abolitionist circuit.
“I thought it was cool that our ancestors not just knew each other, but they actually worked together,” Hood said.
Hood presented Greene with the hardcover book “Historic Tennessee,” scrawled in cursive script. Hood, who is a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer, said Greene’s speaking in Franklin was strange timing: “It’s just coincidence, or coming full circle, that my company is now publishing the 150th anniversary book for Howard University.” Frederick Douglass was a founder of Howard University, a historically black college.
Dozens crowded into pews inside the small church to hear Greene speak, an event that was originally scheduled to be held at the McLemore House in downtown Franklin, but had to be relocated to a bigger space due to the volume of interest.
Greene was introduced by Mary Mills, a former Williamson County Commissioner, who recently received the Caroline J. Cross Award for leadership. “I have to tell you, Frederick Douglass is one of my favorite people,” she said.
As a teacher for many years, Mills said students in her science class would choose to do projects on Mary McLeod Bethune or Frederick Douglass, knowing her partiality to them. “I said, ‘I don’t think they are scientists.’ They said, ‘Well no, but we know you’ll give us an A,’” Mills said to laughs from the crowd.
Franklin Mayor Ken Moore and Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson then spoke briefly before handing the microphone over to Greene.
Greene described his background; he was born in Paris, France, and grew up an Army brat in Monterey, California. He spoke with pride about the community he was raised in: “You’d see every color in the rainbow, that was my life growing up,” he said. “From kindergarten to when I left that community, I have brothers and sisters from every nationality and walk of life.”
Frederick Douglass grew up a slave on the eastern seaboard of Maryland. It has been posited that Douglass was the son of his slave owner, which Greene said he believes to be true. After being raised on a plantation, he was sent to live with a family in Baltimore where he began to learn to read and write from the wife of his new master. After the master scolded his wife for teaching Douglass, she refused to teach him anymore and he began to learn on his own from children in the neighborhood. “What does it take to start a fire?” Greene mused. “It doesn’t take a whole lot. All it takes is a spark.”
Greene focused much of his talk on the young children in the audience, as he emphasized the importance of reading and writing and learning from one’s peers. “Take advantage of that; don’t put yourselves down, don’t put others down because you can benefit from each other,” he urged.
Douglass later dealt with physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Edward Covey, a man Greene said was known as the “Negro-breaker,” whom he fought back against and later escaped from slavery via train, eventually landing in New York City.
Greene listed off Douglass’ later accomplishments: he became the editor for the abolitionist newspaper North Star, wrote three auto-biographical novels including the widely disseminated “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” was a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War, and was nominated for the vice presidency of the United States on the Equal Party ticket.
Though he steered clear of commenting on today’s racial politics in America, Greene did use his platform to discuss another societal issue: human trafficking.
“Now we get to modern times where slavery still exists,” Greene said, before urging people to spread the word about the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an organization to help stop human trafficking.
Growing up in the shadow of Douglass, Greene said he wasn’t fully aware of what the name meant until he visited Douglass’ home and relatives in Washington, D.C., in sixth grade. “The humbleness of it is that we’re still the Greenes,” he said. “I went through school being who I was. The good, bad, and the ugly.”
Later, when Greene was in the Army, stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado, he visited home and saw his mother’s books and relics relating to Douglass. “I asked if I could take it back to Fort Carson with me and do a display. That turned into, ‘Hey can you come talk?’” Greene said. “And here I am.”