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Slave-auction poster assignment prompts apology from NJ school

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — A school assignment about the ugly truth of slavery in Colonial America has prompted an apology from the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

Fifth-graders at South Mountain Elementary School were instructed to draw posters depicting the auction of slaves as part of an assignment to highlight the “ugly and foundational role that slavery played in Colonial America,” the district superintendent said. Among the details students chose to highlight were that one of the slaves was a “fine housegirl” and that another was available for purchase for cash only. A third mentioned that a slave was wanted “dead or alive” in a wanted poster, which other students created as well.

The posters ended up on display in a school hallway and came down after parents called attention to them.

PIX11 approached parents outside the South Mountain Elementary School at pickup time on Monday, but most did not want to talk about the controversial assignment.

But online, the posters generated considerable discussion, mostly condemning them.

Jamil Karriem posted photos of the slave auction posters, which have been shared or commented on hundreds of times.

“Educating young students on the harsh realities of slavery is of course not the issue here,” read the Facebook post, “but the medium for said education is grossly insensitive and negligent … it breaks my heart that these will be the image that young black and brown kids see of people of their skin color.”

One commenter wrote: “I cannot see any justification or lesson objective for having this kind of work taught to children in the manner it is displayed. I find it racist and insulting.”

Another took a different view: “See nothing wrong with this, people just need something to complain about. There were slaves in history and they were sold at auction.”

The district did not respond to PIX11’s request for comment. Parents received an email apologizing for the assignment.

“The posters will be taken down,” reads an e-mail from the assistant superintendent that was posted on Facebook. “It was never anyone’s intention to offend any member of our community.”

The school district told CNN that the assignment, while historically relevant, was “culturally insensitive.”

“We certainly understand and respect the strong reaction which some parents had to seeing slave auction posters included with other artwork from the assignment,” said Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., the superintendent. “We are rethinking the Colonial America Project for next year, and will eliminate the example of a slave auction poste