A Missouri school teacher could soon lose her job after asking her elementary school students to put themselves in the shoes of a white plantation owner and set their “price for a slave.”
The teacher at Blades Elementary School in Oakville, Missouri, is now facing administrative leave and has local groups representing the black community asking for a formal apology.
Fifth-grade students were doing a social studies assignment about wealth and free-market economies, according to KABC, that inexplicably revolved around students—including black and biracial students—playing the role of a slave holder.
Students were asked to set prices for a dozen different items, including common items like milk, wool, tar, lumber, grain, and so on. However, the 12th item in the list was an actual human being.
The prompt was as follows:
“You own a plantation or farm and therefore need more workers. You begin to get involved in the slave trade industry and have slaves work on your farm. Your product to trade is slaves.
Set your price for a slave. _____________ These could be worth a lot.
You may trade for any items you’d like.”
Students were then asked to reflect on the experience and whether they would have been wealthy after taking account of their losses and gains in the exercise.
Missouri was historically a major slave state until the practice of chattel slavery was legally abolished by a state convention in 1865, two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by then-President Abraham Lincoln.
The exercise provoked outrage among parents. Angela Walker, a schoolteacher whose own son is biracial, said that “playing a game” about slavery has no value in the present era.
She told KMOV:
“We have to be more culturally sensitive. We do. We can say to get over homework assignments. ‘It’s just a homework assignment. That was 100 years ago.’
Yes, it was. But it’s still someone else’s family. Maybe there are people who don’t see the wrong in it. We need to be talking about it.”
The local NAACP also demanded an apology and called for educators to be more sensitive to community concerns about slavery.
In a letter sent to parents on Monday, principal Jeremy Booker said:
“As part of both the Missouri Learning Standards for fifth-grade Social Studies and the fifth-grade Mehlville School District curriculum, students were learning about having goods, needing goods and obtaining goods and how that influenced early settlement in America.
Some students who participated in this assignment were prompted to consider how plantation owners traded for goods and slaves.”
However, even Booker was able to recognize the “culturally insensitive” nature of the assignment, and the principal claims that the teacher has now expressed “significant remorse.” Teachers will also likely undergo new training on cultural biases to avoid the reoccurrence of such incidents.
Mehlville School District Superintendent Chris Gaines apologized on Tuesday, explaining:
“Asking a student to participate in a simulated activity that puts a price on a person is not acceptable.
Racism of any kind, even inadvertently stemming from cultural bias, is wrong and is not who we aspire to be as a school district. I am sorry and disappointed that this happened in our school.”