A South Carolina mother believes a school history lesson went a step too far after her 10-year-old son and his classmates were made to pick cotton and sing “slave songs” during a class field trip during Black History Month.
“I’m livid right now,” Jessica Blanchard told Charlotte’s FOX 46, wiping away tears. “I am African-American and my ancestors picked cotton. Why would I want my son to pick cotton and think it’s fun?”
In cellphone video sent to parents, fifth-graders from Ebenezer Avenue Elementary in Rock Hill, S.C., are seen bent down picking cotton while singing a song with the lyrics, “I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don’t talk back … Make money for me.” A separate video taken by a teacher shows students hurrying to fill their sacks with cotton.
Blanchard said the assignment made a “mockery” of the history of slavery.
“A mockery of what our people went through,” she added.
A permission slip, which parents were required to sign, did mention “cotton picking” as part of the lesson — not on slavery, however, but the Great Depression. Blanchard’s son, Jamari, said he didn’t understand the song he was singing but said he thought cotton picking was a “fun game.”
He added that teachers didn’t explain how enslaved Black Americans were used to harvest cotton on plantations across the South.
“It was a contest,” Jamari said of the lesson. “Whoever picked the least amount of cotton had to hold a big sack called ‘Big Mama.'”
Over the last 15 years, Rock Hill students have taken field trips to the Carroll School, which was established for and by African-Americans in 1929. FOX 46 reports that the school was taken over and restored by Rock Hill Schools after closing its doors in 1954 and now serves as a learning center for Black history during the Great Depression, when it was built.
“The Carroll School field experience is a unique learning opportunity for all 5th grade students in Rock Hill Schools’ elementary schools” district spokesman Mychal Frost said in a statement. “As one of the only remaining Rosenwald Schools in operation, the school exists to promote understanding about our past. … And helps students to make real-life connection to this era in American history.”
Wali Cathcart, 81, an instructor and former student who attended the Carroll School in 1943, is part of the center and now shows students first-hand what he and his family had to do in order to survive.
“We need innovation in the education system,” Cathcart told the station. “Not just lecturing children in a classroom telling them something. There’s nothing better than hands on.”
When asked how he would respond to critics who believe his lesson is offensive and trivializes slavery, Cathcart said: “I deal with this issue all the time. One of the problems when it comes to African-American people is that they fail to understand history in its proper context, and, because of that, we are at a disadvantage today.”
Cathcart added that students need to know what their ancestors went through and denied turning cotton-picking into a “race” issue.
“This program is not about that [slavery],” he added. “This program here is centered around the Great Depression of the 1930s, so slavery is not the predominant issue.”
Blachard said she supports the Carroll School and its mission, but was still upset that her son didn’t know he was singing a “slave song” or that Black Americans used to pick cotton.
“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,” she told FOX 46.
Blanchard said the district’s Chief Academic and Accountability Officer had since reached out to apologize to her and her child, and promised to make changes to the program to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.
Watch more in the videos below.