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American schools can’t figure out how to teach kids about slavery

The New York state attorney general found that a teacher’s March mock “slave auction” negatively affected students.

An engraving of enslaved people fleeing from Maryland to Delaware by way of the Underground Railroad, circa 1850.
An engraving of enslaved people fleeing from Maryland to Delaware by way of the Underground Railroad, circa 1850.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In March, a white teacher at an affluent New York private school was accused of holding a mock slave auction for her students in which white fifth-graders pretended to bid on their black peers.

Two months later, a state investigation by the New York attorney general has confirmed that the mock auction took place, and that it had a negative impact on students, prompting a new set of reforms at the school.

The student auction took place at the Chapel School in Bronxville, New York, a private school in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood north of Manhattan. According to a March 8 report from New York’s PIX11 news, fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Antinozzi had black students leave the classroom and, according to one student, pretended “to put imaginary chains along our necks and wrists, and shackles on our ankles.”

The teacher then led the students back into the classroom, where their white classmates “were encouraged to bid on them,” according to the outlet. Antinozzi reportedly pretended to be a slave auctioneer during the simulation.

The classroom activity received attention after a black parent at the school complained, saying that her son was humiliated by the exercise. “I’m shocked and infuriated that this happened to my son,” the mother, Vernex Harding, told the New York Daily News.

The school then launched an investigation into the incident, calling the mock auction “racially insensitive and hurtful” in an email to the school. Antinozzi has since been fired from her position; a lawyer representing Antinozzi says the former teacher plans to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.

After launching her own investigation into the matter, New York Attorney General Letitia James found that two different fifth-grade classes participated in the exercise.

“The investigation found that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large,” James said in a statement Wednesday.

Beyond the simulations, James’s investigation also found that the Chapel School repeatedly failed to respond to parent complaints about the unequal treatment of students of color and a lack of staff diversity.

The school has since entered into an agreement with the attorney general’s office committing to a number of reforms, including creating a plan to increase staff diversity, retaining a diversity consultant, and creating a new code of conduct that outlines how the school will handle cases of harassment and discrimination. The school will also create a complaint process for students and parents to report discrimination and other concerning incidents.

When it first became news in March, the classroom mock auction was the latest in a long line of high-profile controversies revolving around poorly conceived lessons about slavery in American schools. And similar controversies in other schools showed that ill-conceived or outright offensive classroom simulations about slavery continue to be a problem. Collectively, these incidents reveal just how bad American schools still are at educating students about slavery and how it has shaped American history.

That’s a problem — and not just because students aren’t getting an adequate education. Poor lessons about slavery in schools also make it harder for people to see how the impacts of enslavement continue to affect black communities in the present.

There have been plenty of examples of highly questionable lessons about slavery in schools

As the New York story was unfolding in March, an elementary school in Wilmington, North Carolina, was making headlines for having students play a “monopoly-like” role-playing game called “Escaping Slavery” to teach students about the Underground Railroad.

The grandparent of a black student at the school argued that the game was offensive, noting that it included cartoon images of shackles and enslaved families. One part of the game required students to use a “Freedom Punch Card.” “If your group runs into trouble four times, you will be severely punished and sent back to the plantation to work as a slave,” the card said.

A few weeks before that, a school in Loudoun County, Virginia, was criticized for having students run an obstacle course intended to simulate moving through the Underground Railroad. The school said that the lesson was intended to teach teamwork and communication, adding that students were not explicitly told to think of themselves as enslaved people during the activity.

The Loudoun NAACP, on the other hand, argued that even without the instruction, the intent of the game was obvious: Given that the Underground Railroad was used to help enslaved people escape to the North, the majority of students going through the obstacle course would clearly be role-playing as enslaved people.

And in February, a black mother in South Carolina mother complained after she learned that her son went on a school field trip where students picked cotton while singing songs, arguing that the activity was inappropriate.

The boy’s school district apologized, but instructors at the trip site countered that students were learning about the Great Depression, adding that students have been taken on the trip for nearly 15 years and that the trip site is an old school run by black instructors.

These are just a few examples, but there are many, many, many more.

A lot of states are struggling to teach the full history of slavery. That struggle is having a big impact on students.

Social media posts from angered black parents and civil rights groups have brought a number of these incidents to light in recent years, but it’s unclear how widespread these sorts of activities are. What is clear, though, is that these simulations fit into a larger set of difficulties school systems across America have when it comes to teaching about slavery and connecting the past to current fights for racial justice.

A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center took a comprehensive look at this issue. Researchers surveyed students and teachers across the country, reviewed popular textbooks, and looked at state standards on education about slavery.

And what they found was disturbing.

The report found that out of 1,000 high school seniors polled, just 8 percent identified slavery as the reason the South seceded from the Union, sparking the Civil War. Forty-eight percent said that tax protests were the cause of the conflict; the researchers noted that it was possible these students were confusing the Civil War with the Revolutionary War.

Researchers also discovered that of the 15 states whose educational standards they examined, “none [address] how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery” and that “most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.”

The SPLC report was especially critical of the use of simulations in the classroom, arguing that they are “not shown to be effective as a learning strategy.” The report noted that simulations “can harm vulnerable children” and that the trauma of such lessons is compounded for black students.

“Although we teach them that slavery happened, we fail to provide the detail or historical context they need to make sense of its origin, evolution, demise and legacy,” Ohio State University historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries wrote in the report. “And in some cases, we minimize slavery’s significance so much that we render its impact — on people and on the nation — inconsequential.”

As a result, high school graduates are left with a flawed and incomplete understanding of slavery and its legacy: the legalized discrimination and racial disparities that continue to impact black communities to this day.

“It’s clear that the United States is still struggling with how to talk about the history of slavery and its aftermath,” the researchers noted. And as controversies over lessons like the mock auction in New York and other problematic lessons from recent months show, this struggle is having a real effect on black students and their parents.