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N.J. Parents Demand Explanation for Fifth-Graders’ Slave Auction Posters

Posters depicting slave auction ads were hung along the hallways of South Mountain Elementary. Image courtesy of Jamil Karriem.

Parents in South Orange, N.J., are outraged after learning of a “grossly insensitive” history assignment in which fifth-grade students were asked to draw slave auction posters. Now, school district officials are scrambling to plan a community meeting to talk about the many issues surrounding the controversial assignment.

Anger erupted last week after parents at the South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange visited the school for parent-teacher conferences and saw students’ slave auction posters hanging in the hallways, according to Upset parents took to social media Tuesday, March 7, to express their outrage over the matter.

“It is completely lost on me how this project could be an effective way to teach any student in any age group about American history,” enraged parent Jamil Karriem wrote on Facebook. “Educating young students on the harsh realities of slavery is of course not the issue here — but the medium for said education is grossly insensitive and negligent.”

Karriem went on to encourage parents to send an email expressing their outrage and demand that school district officials provide an explanation on how they plan to fix the situation.

In a letter written to parents, South Orange Superintendent John Ramos seemingly defended the class assignment, saying the poster project was part of a larger Colonial America unit for fifth-graders that had been in place for the past decade. District officials said the assignment was just one of several options students could have chosen to complete.

Furor over the project has since prompted district officials to consult education experts about it, according to the superintendent.

“One of the anti-bias experts highlighted the fact that schools all over our country often skip over the more painful aspects of American history and that we needed to do a better job of acknowledging the uglier parts of our past, so that children learn the full story,” Ramos said in his letter.

The superintendent said he understood why parents were upset, as some of the images and rhetoric were disturbing. He maintained that the backlash might not have been so intense if the displays included an explanation of the project or its learning objectives.

The posters have since been taken down and district leaders apologized to parents who were offended. Superintendent Ramos noted, however, that some local families have come out in support of the poster project, lauding the assignment for addressing a “shameful and too-often ignored chapter of American history.”

Andrea Espinoza, a caregiver, told WABC-TV that the project, though disturbing, was a “part of history.”

“I think it’s good that [students] know,” she said.

South Mountain Elementary principal Alyna Jacobs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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