A Black History Month project at a southern New Jersey school has generated quite a stir after at least one student created a wanted poster containing pictures of runaway slaves.
The controversial lesson was titled “Slave Auction/Antislavery Poster Project,” reports WPVI-TV, the local ABC affiliate.
Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade special-needs students at Penns Grove Middle School read “Nightjohn” by Gary Paulsen in language arts class, explains the South Jersey Times. The young adult fiction book recounts the often brutal conditions of slaves in the American South.
For the subsequent assignment, an unnamed teacher asked students to assume that slavery had never been outlawed in the United States. They were to elect to be either a slave owner looking to auction some human chattel, or an abolitionist promoting an end to slavery. Then, they were supposed to make posters out of construction paper supporting their positions.
The resulting posters did not sit well with local civil rights activists. As WPVI notes, one particularly galling poster read: “Slave on the run, $1,700 reward to catch the Negro.”
“This is what we’re teaching here? In Penns Grove?” Walter Hudson, said, according to WPVI. Hudson represents a group called National Awareness Alliance.
Hudson and the Alliance are requesting an official apology.
“We’re looking to just get a public apology from that teacher that the curriculum that she came up with was not a good curriculum, was not appropriate,” Terence Jones, also of the National Awareness Alliance, added.
“It’s inappropriate to have students to become a slave master, pick a slave, pick a plantation for their slave and create a poster,” Hudson added, according to Fox News Radio.
School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Massery countered that the teacher only wanted to make her students knowledgeable about slavery.
“The teacher of the assignment was totally proper and followed appropriate educational material,” Massare told the South Jersey Times.
“Do I feel that there could have been other ways of working on that poster part of the curriculum? Probably so, and in discussing the situation with her and with the principal, they did adjust,” the superintendent told WPVI.
In addition, Massery pointed out that the teacher had also addressed the evils of slavery.
The circumstances under which this story became public are somewhat unclear.
Hudson told the South Jersey Times that parents — plural — contacted him last week.
Superintendent Massery’s story is that an unidentified parent contacted him expressing concern about the assignment. At a board of education meeting on Monday, Massare suggested that no other parents had complained.
Whatever the case, no parents spoke at the board meeting Monday night.