Parents question South Mountain Elementary School's slave auction poster assignment

Fifth-graders at South Mountain Elementary School were given an assignment about Colonial America that has some parents worried.

Fifth-graders at South Mountain Elementary School were given an assignment about Colonial America that has some parents worried. (3/10/17)

SOUTH ORANGE - Posters for slave auctions created by fifth-graders have been removed from the wall of an Essex County elementary school hallway after some parents questioned the assignment.

South Orange/Maplewood School Superintendent John Ramos said in a note to parents that the project at South Mountain Elementary School is part of a larger Colonial America unit that's been used for 10 years.  The assignment was to create “primary source-type documents that reflect one of the colonies and time period of Colonial America.” 

Students were given a “menu” of tasks to complete such as write a journal, news article or friendly letter. Students could have also chosen to create an advertisement poster “for a lecture or a speech, protest or slave auction.”

One poster listed the names of available slaves, who included 12-year-old Anne, "a fine housegirl." Another poster says, "All slaves raised on the plantation of John Carter," and specifies that only cash is accepted.

Ramos says that after receiving complaints from some parents, the administrators discussed the assignment with several experts in the field of anti-bias education. One of the experts told the staff that schools often skip over certain aspects of American history that aren’t pleasant, but that it was important for educators to a better job of acknowledging the uglier parts of America’s past, so that children learn the full story.

Ramos says that the project’s display should have included an explanation so that the posters were not viewed out of context.

“It is essential that we continue to have conversations in our classrooms, our community and our homes which acknowledge all aspects of our history, and explore the impact that past still has on us today,” Ramos said in the letter to parents.

The district is planning a community meeting to discuss whether the assignment is appropriate for fifth-graders.

The Associated Press wire services contributed to this report.

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