The messages were the result of an assignment asking Waxhaw Elementary School students to write tweets that North Carolina residents might have posted if Twitter had existed in the Civil War era. Initially, the school about 20 miles south of Charlotte shared a photograph of the “Civil War Twitter Board” on Facebook, writing in the caption that the fourth-grade students “picked the tweet they were most proud of” for the display.
After the image drew coverage from a local television station, and outrage from the community, school officials apologized and removed the proslavery messages.
“Today I was made aware of an elementary school assignment about the Civil War that was racially insensitive and not appropriate,” Union County Public Schools Superintendent Andrew G. Houlihan wrote in a statement. “I want to be clear: any type of assignment such as this is unacceptable. We are taking this matter very seriously and will ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
It was the latest instance of a school botching an attempt to teach students about slavery — a problem that has long endured in American education. For decades, many textbooks glossed over the institution of slavery, and some teachings portrayed it as almost benevolent.
Schools are still failing to teach the “hard history of African enslavement,” the Southern Poverty Law Center found in a 2018 report. Lessons often mischaracterize, sanitize or neglect to contextualize slavery’s role and its lasting effects in the United States. As a consequence, students struggle to answer even basic questions about it.
Part of the problem, the report found, is a reliance on teaching methods poorly suited for the subject matter. Examples abound: In recent years, a Virginia elementary school had students complete an obstacle course meant to simulate the Underground Railroad, and a Texas middle school gave an assignment asking for a list of slavery’s positive and negative aspects. A New Jersey school reenacted an auction of enslaved people.
Just weeks ago, a Mississippi school saw a furious backlash over an assignment asking students to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and “write a letter to your family back in Africa … describing your life,” the Daily Beast reported. The exercise added, “You may also want to tell about the family you live with/work for and how you pass your time when you aren’t working.”
“They want us to think slavery was polite,” Reginald Virgil, the president of Black Lives Matter Mississippi, told the Daily Beast.
In the North Carolina case, the school said in its initial Facebook post that students had “studied North Carolinians that had different roles and perspectives on the Civil War.” Afterward, they “wrote tweets from each of their different perspectives that included their roles, opinions and beliefs.”
Fox 46 Charlotte first reported on the exercise last week after being alerted to it by a parent who said she was questioning whether to send her child to the school.
Kimberly Morrison-Hansley of the Union County NAACP told the Charlotte Observer that the lack of context made it appear as if the students were espousing racist messages themselves rather than showing what they believed people might have written during the Civil War.
“It should be deeply disturbing to anyone,” she said.
Houlihan said in his statement that the district is working on professional development addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. He added that such “lessons have no place” in the district’s schools.
But Morrison-Hansley, a former member of the county education board who was the first Black woman elected to the board, told the Observer that the statement wasn’t enough. She called for the superintendent and board members to face the public and apologize directly.