It was Black History Month and her ancestors had fought against slavery, so Lamari Johnson couldn’t help but think that her California high school’s annual fundraiser — an auction to buy and sell her classmates — was inherently flawed.
So the senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento approached a teacher with her concerns, but the complaint wasn’t taken seriously, she told the Sacramento Bee.
Next, the 17-year-old senior turned to the Internet and rallied for the auction’s demise through an online petition on Change.org.
“My ancestors fought for freedom, fought to not be enslaved, sold and separated from their family,” Johnson wrote in the petition, adding that she had overheard classmates making jokes about buying slaves. “It’s not even that it’s Black History Month. Auctioning off a human is all around wrong.”
After a boost of exposure from the local Black Lives Matter chapter and a meeting with her high school principal, Johnson triumphed.
Last week, the Sacramento City Unified School District announced it would cancel the 15-year tradition.
“I think in today’s environment where there’s a lot of insensitivity towards groups of people, we need to be really mindful of that,” school district spokesperson Alex Barrios told TV station Fox 40. “Our students are learning from what they hear on TV and what they see, and so when we see anything that might mimic some of that rhetoric it really is something we pay attention to.”
In an interview over the weekend, Johnson told the Sacramento Bee the online petition made her a target of personal attacks from those who enjoy the senior auction, an annual event that raises money for the senior class fund. It is voluntary, she wrote in her petition, but has long made some students and staff uncomfortable for its subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — parallels to the American slave trade.
One former teacher, Sonia Lewis, who taught history and led the school’s magnet Criminal Justice Academy program, told the Bee she used the fundraiser during class as a way to differentiate auctioning an object and a human being.
“I think when you replace things with people you run the chance of having a slippery slope, of being offensive,” Lewis, a member of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, told the Bee.
In her five years at the school, Lewis said she heard on multiple occasions students bragging, “I bought you as a slave for the day,” reported the Bee. In another instance a group of students bought a senior, who was not African American, and led him around on a leash all day with his hands bound, she said.
“Any time any of those things are going on,” Lewis told the newspaper, “I think we have to step back as adults and say this is not appropriate.”
Students have also used the auction to force a senior to carry their backpack for a day or recite a poem on demand, school officials told the Bee.
In her petition and during her meeting with principal David Van Natten, Johnson noted the area’s challenges with human trafficking. Van Natten, who is in his second year as principal, told the Bee he took note of her concerns and later told the school’s student activities director that the Senior Auction would not continue in the future.
“The goal is a learning environment that is nurturing, safe and inclusive,” Van Natten told the Bee. “And as principal, the buck stops here. I did not feel like this event met those criteria and, hence, my decision it would not go on.”
Even before Johnson voiced her objection to the auction, Van Natten told the Bee he had discussed with his administrative team the idea of ending the event.
Where Johnson felt victory, though, some of her classmates expressed frustration. Her petition inspired a counterpetition, created by an “Anonymous JFK Student,” that called the auction “harmless” and a “silly tradition.”
“Being bought doesn’t even mean anything and the whole thing is just for fun,” the counter-petition said. “Bring back this fun school tradition that is harmless and has no intentions to harm or offend anyone.”
Johnson told the Bee that she understood why some students might disagree with her stance, but that, ultimately, the broader implications of the human auction outweighed what was being lost.
The lesson, she told the Bee, was the importance of standing up for what she believed in, even when faced with opposition.
“If people didn’t fight for gay rights, if they didn’t fight for civil rights,” she told the Bee, “we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
More from Morning Mix