When schools closed across the country in March, teachers and schools scrambled to put together materials that students could complete at home — and we get that things were a bit, shall we say, disorganized. But one mom in Columbia, S.C., thinks that’s no excuse for one assignment her 9-year-old daughter received, asking her to write a journal entry from the perspective of a slave or a slave owner.
“So me and my daughter completing her eLearning assignments, to turn in this week and look at this foolishness for Social Studies,” Ursula Harris wrote on Facebook this week, sharing a photo of a worksheet with the writing prompt.
“Choose to be a slave or slave owner,” reads the worksheet. “Write a journal entry that describes your daily activities before the Civil War.”
Harris was not about to have her Black daughter complete such an exercise. Learning our country’s painful history is one thing, but forcing a fourth grader to imagine the trauma of slavery is a step too far.
“How do you tell your 9-year-old how to answer something like that?” Harris asked rhetorically in an interview with local news station WLTX.
“My concern is, how in the world did Richland One [school district] allow that to get out in the public, just present this to the students, period?” Harris said. “I’m all for teaching our history, but it is like a slap in the face to ask a colored child what you would do as a daily activity if you were a slave or slave owner.”
In response, Richland County School District One issued a statement of apology for the worksheet.
“In very quickly pulling together learning activities for students to complete at home, the sample lesson activity on slavery was inadvertently included in the fourth-grade social studies learning packet,” superintendent Craig Witherspoon said in the statement, according to the Post and Courier. “When it was brought to our attention back in March, it was addressed at that time. The activity was inappropriate and should not have been included. Students should not complete the activity, and their grade will not be impacted by leaving the activity blank or removing it completely from the packet.”
The statement doesn’t explain who made such an assignment in the first place, why no one flagged it before it went out to students, or how it was “addressed” back in March. However that was done, Harris didn’t get the message, so it seems likely that other parents didn’t either. Needless to say, she is not pleased with this response.
“They think a funky apology gonna ease our heart and experiences,” she wrote on Facebook. “Richland District One needs to be held accountable. I want whoever dropped the ball FIRED. I don’t care if it’s the whole department either. Time for a change the positions need new leaders. I have to go to my child’s school today to turn in her assignments, and I dare anyone to come out their mouth sideways to me.”
If parents and teachers are interested in ways to teach the history of slavery in a truthful, sensitive manner, we recommend the guide Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, put together by educators and scholars for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
You might also get help from reading these surprisingly rad American history books.