The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students asked black peers to portray slaves during a lesson. The school said it shouldn’t have happened.


A principal at a public elementary school in the District said the school was wrong to conduct a lesson about slavery in which fifth-grade students were asked to take part in a simulation of enslavement.

In a letter sent to families at Lafayette Elementary School in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, Principal Carrie Broquard said students “should not have been tasked with acting out or portraying different perspectives of enslavement and war.” Though intended as a learning exercise, the assignment was a “mistake” and will not be offered in the future, the principal said.

Broquard said the lesson followed weeks of learning about the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. To show what they had learned, students had the option of creating a dramatic reading or a podcast.

“Unfortunately,” Broquard wrote, “several students of color were asked by their peers to portray inappropriate and harmful roles.”

Broquard did not reply to an interview request. When asked about the lesson, a spokesman for D.C. Public Schools referred to the principal’s letter.

The school explained in a separate letter to fifth-grade parents that the incidents occurred when students broke off to work in small groups. School officials apologized for not setting parameters to “protect students” and for failing to foresee potential problems with the assignment.

“We learned that during group work, a few students of color had been asked by their peers to play roles that are inappropriate and harmful — a person of color drinking from a segregated water fountain and an enslaved person,” the letter read.

How is slavery taught in American schools?

Broquard said the school is addressing the incident and plans to continue discussions about race on campus to ensure that future assignments are “culturally sensitive and appropriate.” Staff members will attend a diversity training next month.

The school also provided recommendations to help parents speak with their children about race.

“During the classroom circles and small group discussions, students expressed discomfort in the roles they were asked to play,” Broquard’s letter read. “Others expressed uncertainty in how to respond or advocate for peers who were uncomfortable.”

Challenges involved in the teaching of slavery aren’t unique to Lafayette.

In August, The Washington Post published a series of articles about the obstacles and failures of teaching slavery in American schools. Many teachers said they felt ill-prepared to teach the topic, and textbooks rarely do more than skim the surface.

In 2017, under the supervision of a substitute teacher, fifth-graders at a New Jersey school held a mock auction, where a black student was used to demonstrate how people sold slaves. A 2019 investigation by New York’s attorney general found that a private schoolteacher instructed African American students in her fifth-grade classes to leave the classroom, then placed imaginary shackles on them. She then asked them to return to the classroom and simulated an auction in front of their classmates.

“The investigation found that the teacher’s reenactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African-American students — and the school community at large,” a statement from the attorney general’s office read.

Unlike science and math, history is taught differently in every state and almost every school district.

The D.C. State Board of Education is in the middle of a multiyear review of citywide social studies standards to guide when and in what context historical events are introduced to students.

In the District, students in younger grades learn about slavery through holidays and historical figures. Kindergartners, for example, learn about D.C. Emancipation Day, a holiday that marks the abolition of slavery in the District.

In third grade, according to social studies standards published online, students learn about President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches at the Lincoln Memorial and Frederick Douglass’s speech against lynching in the District.

In fourth grade, students more directly learn about slavery as they are taught about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

And in fifth grade, the guidelines indicate, students have more in-depth lessons on slavery, including the slave trade, the growth of slavery in the United States, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Why haven’t the nation’s schools done a better job of teaching about slavery?

They worry about anger, fear, guilt. Some feel ill-equipped. Educators confront teaching about slavery.

How American teachers feel about teaching slavery

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news