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YMCA Cancels Slavery Reenactment Program, Black Parents Say Activity is ‘Racially Insensitive’

Students pretend to be taken prisoner and loaded onto a slave ship as they participate in YMCA Camp Jewel's outdoor education program about the Underground Railroad. Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman

Students pretend to be taken prisoner and loaded onto a slave ship as they participate in YMCA Camp Jewel’s outdoor education program about the Underground Railroad. Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman

In Jackson, Michigan, a long-standing Underground Railroad activity at the YMCA Storer Camps transported young onlookers into the past in order to see the evils of slavery.

After parents complained, the YMCA decided to halt the historical activity all together this month. The Washington Post reports that the activity was “deemed appropriate for students in fifth grade and up, the activity puts students and teachers in the roles of slaves in search of freedom. [In addition] there are masters and runaway enslaved people who encountered role-players on horseback.”

On the surface the whole activity seemed innocent and harmless, but Black parents Tiffany Birchett and Regina Crutchfield, who both had children attend the activity, did not view it that way.

“My daughter came home after the camp. She was very disturbed, and she told me what happened. First, I was wondering if this was a ritual that they do to these kids every year they attend the camp,” Birchett told the Detroit News. “She told me the camp instructors, including some of their teachers, were dancing and happy before they went out to do this slave re-enactment.”

Brichett said, “The slave masters had certificates which allowed them to pay for the slaves, and the students were required to hold up the certificates when they were bought or sold.”

Brichett said she emailed the principal of Pardee Elementary, William J. Murphy, in December because she was “dismayed that Pardee Elementary would authorize and condone such an extremely racially insensitive and damaging activity.”

Her child’s elementary school had planned the activity with the YMCA to expose the children to the history of slavery. Brichett signed up after hearing about the activity through the school.

Brichett’s grievances gave other parents the necessary push to also say something about the activity.

Crutchfield recalls one enactment that had “one of the guys [camp instructors] killing a deputy. They should not do that in front of a 10-year-old, and not when kids are hundreds of miles away from home,” Crutchfield said. “If they want to teach Black history, they should do that in the classroom.”

YMCA responded to the allegations:

“At no time did staff chase children through the woods on horseback during the Underground Railroad,” YMCA of Greater Toledo chief executive Brad Toft said in a statement. “Two trained equine staff played roles from horseback, interacting with the travel groups of students during the reenactment. The students were never put into a position where they could have been harmed, nor were there ever weapons used during the reenactment.”

The YMCA has faced these types of allegations before. The Washington Post reports that in 1999 the YMCA had to restructure their entire program regarding slave block auctions and Black actors. In 2013, the organization was met with a humans rights complaint in Connecticut where there were instances of the n-word being used in reenactments.

The organization has suspended all reenactments, but the YMCA should not give up on teaching about the evils of slavery. They just have to go back to the drawing board and do it right. This aspect of American history deserves that.

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