The long-running Underground Railroad activity at the YMCA Storer Camps in Michigan is meant to “take visitors back in time to the reality of the error of slavery,” according to camp literature.
Deemed appropriate for students in fifth grade and up, the activity puts students and teachers in the roles of slaves in search of freedom.
There are masters and runaway slaves who encounter role-players on horseback.
But the YMCA camp ended the program this month after complaints from an African American parent who says her child was deeply troubled by the experience.
Tiffany Birchett told the Detroit News that her 10-year-old daughter, Makayla, was “very disturbed” upon returning home from the camp in 2015 and describing the Underground Railroad activity to her mother.
“First, I was wondering if this was a ritual that they do to these kids every year they attend the camp,” Birchett told the newspaper. “She told me the camp instructors, including some of their teachers, were dancing and happy before they went out to do this slave re-enactment.”
The ACLU of Michigan wrote a letter to YMCA leadership this month raising concerns about the Underground Railroad. The YMCA of Greater Toledo, which operates the camp, promptly discontinued the Underground Railroad activity.
“We take this very seriously,” YMCA of Greater Toledo chief executive Brad Toft told MLive. “Our intent is to create an environment kids can thrive in, and we would never do anything deliberately to hurt that. We don’t want to offer anything that makes anyone feel uncomfortable.”
Students weren’t assigned roles on the basis of ethnicity or gender, Toft said in a statement. Social studies teachers helped design the activity that was “carried out with great sensitivity, due to the content, by trained, professional staff,” he said.
The ACLU of Michigan welcomed the YMCA’s move to abolish the Underground Railroad.
“To its credit, the organization demonstrated wisdom and maturity by deciding to discontinue the activity,” Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, said in a release. “We respect and continue to respect the integrity and good work of the YMCA.”
Fancher added: “While we presume the ‘Underground Railroad’ program was the product of good intentions, it nevertheless was a disservice both to the memory of those who endured the horrors of slavery and to the child participants in the program who left the camp either traumatized or with the misperception that slavery was comparable to an overnight camp adventure.”
Michigan is home to several sites along the historic Underground Railroad, a series of checkpoints where runaway slaves found safety during their northward escapes.
The YMCA Storer Camps have partnered with local schools for 20 years to offer the Underground Railroad program as a supplement to history classes, Toft said. Forty schools participate annually, and no complaints have been received about the activity until recently, he said. “It consistently gets high marks from both teachers and students.”
A 2014 YMCA programming guide describes the Underground Railroad activity as being the camp’s “most serious” and “a living history experience.”
“Students and teachers will be asked to role-play while they participate as slaves in search of freedom,” reads the description. “The purpose of this activity is to teach students about this sad time in our country’s history. It will also develop personal awareness of prejudices that occur everyday.”
Birchett told the Detroit News she raised concerns in an email to her daughter’s principal, writing that “as the mother of an African American son and daughter,” she was dismayed by the “racially insensitive experience.” In the email, according to the Detroit News, Birchett noted her daughter had been “displaying bouts of sadness” since the trip where “the slave masters (camp instructors and teachers) had certificates which allowed them to pay for the slaves, and the students were required to hold up the certificates when they were bought or sold.”
Another parent later voiced similar concerns about her 10-year-old daughter attending the camp’s activity.
“My daughter said she was scared. One of the guys (camp instructors) re-enacted killing a deputy,” Regina Crutchfield told the Detroit News. “They should not do that in front of a 10-year-old, and not when kids are hundreds of miles away from home. If they want to teach black history, they should do that in the classroom.”
The complaints reached the ACLU of Michigan, which appealed to the YMCA’s national office about the long-standing local activity. “It is important to teach children about the tragedy of the slave era,” wrote Fancher, the Racial Justice Project attorney. “However, it is equally important to ensure that in the process, children descended from enslaved Africans are not publicly humiliated and traumatized.”
The ACLU described the Underground Railroad as a nighttime event where “children of all races are instructed to role-play as slaves. They stand on an auction block while adults playing the roles of slave traders and slave owners inspect and purchase them.”
Although the ACLU letter describes children being “chased through the woods by adults on horseback,” Toft said that no such activity takes place during the event.
“At no time did staff chase children through the woods on horseback during the Underground Railroad,” Toft, the YMCA chief executive, said in a statement. “Two trained equine staff played roles from horseback, interacting with the travel groups of students during the reenactment.”
He added that students shared their experiences at the end of the program. “The students were never put into a position where they could have been harmed, nor were there ever weapons used during the reenactment.”
This isn’t the first time such a reenactment activity has come under scrutiny. In 2013, a Connecticut parent filed a human rights complaint against a school district after she said her seventh-grade daughter, who is African American, attended a slavery reenactment trip where racial epithets were allegedly used.
And in Colonial Williamsburg, the NAACP protested years of controversial slave auction block reenactments, leading to new programming in 1999 that expanded roles for black actors at the living historic site.