South Orange-Maplewood parents organize in response to ‘mock slave auction’ and bias

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MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — Parents say bias incidents have been reported in the South Orange-Maplewood School District, prior to reports of an elementary class assignment to draw posters depicting wanted slaves and a “mock slave auction” held by students in another elementary school.

“There were a group of 4th graders who were yelling Adolf Hitler’s name,” said Tawana Burnett, a mom of two.

She said the rash of incidents have alarmed her and and other parents, “whether it’s the KKK writing that’s been on bathrooms and on the walls, or ‘black people will be lynched’, those are the words I’ll use,” she said.

Burnett’s kids attend South Mountain Elementary School. She and other parents saw posters hanging in the hallway. “Slaves at auction” read one, “Anne, aged 12 years a fine house girl.”

“Wanted,” read another, “dead or alive.”

“We were appalled as parents that there as no context in the posters around these horrible historic events,” said Michael Minor, a father of two.

Images of the posters shared to social media have gone viral. Debates about how to educate kids about this ugly period in American history have been divisive online, but now a group of over 400 parents have banded together to take action. They’ve already held one parents forum and they penned an open letter to the Superintendent of South Orange-Maplewood Schools.

“Elementary school children have shared with their parents that they are afraid to use the bathroom during the school day, and others have complained to teachers and administrators that they’ve been told by peers to ‘go back to Africa’,” it reads.
“The district apologizes for any hurt, any pain that people have taken away from these circumstances,” said Dr. John Ramos, the district superintendent, “obviously the district had no intention for these results to occur.”

The South Orange & Maplewood Community Coalition on Race has also held meetings with the district to discuss the curriculum.

“We don’t want to shy away from the painful parts of our history, and sometimes that comes with problems and difficulties,” said Nancy Gagnier, executive director of the Coalition.

A town hall meeting is planned for next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the high school.

On Tuesday, a workshop on how to talk to children about race will be hosted in the library at the South Orange Middle School at 7 p.m.