A video of fifth-graders from Ebenezer Avenue Elementary in Rock Hill, South Carolina, has parents furious for an extremely good reason. The video, which was taken by a teacher on a cell phone before being sent to parents, shows students picking cotton and singing slave songs.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Children are reportedly instructed to sing lyrics including: “I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don't talk back. Make money for me.” In another video, students rush around trying to fill their sacks with cotton. An adult beats a rhythm similar to a drum and yells, “I can’t hear y’all!” nearby.
One of the students told his mother that “Whoever picked the least amount of cotton had to hold a big sack called 'Big Mama.'" Another child told their parent that their class had been instructed to haul wheelbarrows around "like a donkey."
Apparently, this was part of a history lesson.
As reported by a local Fox affiliate, parents signed a permission slip to receive a lesson that included “cotton picking,” but some felt that this was under the premise of learning about the Great Depression, not slavery.
The field trips are held at the Carroll School, which is a historical schoolhouse. The purpose of the Carroll School is to educate visitors.
Mychal Frost, director of marketing and communications of the Rock Hill school district, gave a statement to WJZY explaining the alleged purpose of this field trip:
"The Carroll School field experience is a unique learning opportunity for all fifth-grade students in Rock Hill Schools' elementary schools. As one of the only remaining Rosenwald Schools in operation, the school exists to promote understanding about our past, specifically the Great Depression and schooling in America.
The students are afforded an opportunity to learn directly from two local men, one of whom is a former student of The Carroll School, who lead students through a variety of hands-on activities and experiences. As part of the fifth-grade curriculum, students study the Great Depression time period, and this field trip helps students make real-life connections to this era in American history."
Let’s do a quick review of history here. African-American children (and adult men and women) were forced to work in cotton fields as slaves under horrific conditions. They often sang. Overseers often hovered nearby yelling and threatening violence and punishment.
Even after slavery ended, this sort of dynamic in cotton-picking, in particular, did not. For example, during Jim Crow, many African-American (and some very poor white) sharecroppers continued working in cotton fields for disgustingly low pay and in poor conditions. In terms of the focus of this history lesson, this era did overlap with the Great Depression … but, from reports, the school handled it with absolutely no grace or responsibility.
Erica Poplus, a parent whose daughter attended the field trip in September, spoke to ABC News, stating, "I feel like if they were going to sing slave songs and they didn't feel like the parents would be offended that it would have been mentioned in the field trip permission slip. So that right there shows the manipulation that they portrayed."
Jessica Blanchard, another parent whose child attended a field trip under the same circumstances, but this time during February (which is Black History Month), told WJZY:
"I'm livid right now. I'm African-American, and my ancestors picked cotton. Why would I want my son to pick cotton and think it's fun?
I support the Carroll School. I support everything else about it. But I don't understand, at the end, why do you make it a point to pick cotton and sing those songs? I think it's misguided, and maybe ignorance on their part."
In a statement on Friday, the Rock Hill school district said the songs were not intended "to sound like, or in any way be a 'slave song' as it has been characterized,” which makes one wonder what, precisely, they were supposed to sound like.
Perhaps the icing on the cake is that (at least some) students didn’t understand the history aspect of what they were doing. Blanchard’s son, for example, reports that the instructors didn’t explain how cotton was harvested by slaves.
FOX 46 reporter Matt Grant asked the child, “Did they talk about how slaves used to pick cotton?”
"No," he said.
Which goes back to the question: What, exactly, about this is educational?