Some New Jersey parents were outraged this week when they realized the walls of their kids’ school were covered in “Wanted” posters for runaway slaves and advertisements for slave auctions that had been made by the fifth graders as part of a class project.
According to AOL.com, fifth graders at the South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange, New Jersey, were instructed to make colorful posters advertising events that might have happened in Colonial America. The kids were given a list of potential poster ideas including lectures, speeches, protests, or slave auctions. Making posters for events is not a bad idea at all, but the specific execution of this resulted in the school’s hallways being decorated in hand-drawn posters of frowning black men marked “Wanted: Dead or Alive” displayed alongside advertisements encouraging people to come buy “valuable” slaves at auction.
According to local parent Jamil Karriem, the slave auction posters and wanted signs were displayed in the hallways where all the students, ages four through 10, could see them, and most of those kids would have no idea of the context or purpose of the lesson. They’d just see a wall of slave auction ads and “Wanted” posters with black faces on them.
“Educating young students on the harsh realities of slavery is of course not the issue here, but the medium for said education is grossly insensitive and negligent,” Karriem wrote. “In a curriculum that lacks representation for students of color, it breaks my heart that these will be the images that young black and brown kids see of people with their skin color. Furthermore, it is COMPLETELY lost on me how this project could be an effective way to teach any student in any age group about American history.”
School Superintendent John Ramos initially defended the project, saying that it came about as an attempt to address the “uglier” parts of American history. After more complaints from parents, however, the posters were taken down, and Ramos acknowledged that the displays should at least have had an explanation of the assignment before before decorating the multi-use hallways.
“We completely understand how disturbing these images are, and why parents were upset. This was exacerbated by the fact that the displays did not include an explanation of the assignment or its learning objectives,” he wrote.