How is it that a camp program that required African-American kids to act as slaves while their teachers and instructors chase them as their “masters” on horseback was considered OK in the first place?
Why did it take a parent’s complaint and involvement from the American Civil Liberties Union to cancel a nearly 20-year-old activity that should not have been made a part of a children’s activity to begin with?
These are some of the questions that come to mind after reading YMCA’s decision to discontinue the "Underground Railroad" activity at its Storer Camps in Jackson, Michigan.
The community-focused nonprofit established in 1844, considered “a leader in outdoor education,” reportedly made black children, from fifth grades and up, play slaves on an auction block while their teachers and camp instructors, posing as slave masters, chased them around on horseback.
The program's aim, apparently, was to "take visitors back in time to the reality of the error of slavery." But it left one 10-year-old Makayla Birchett traumatized.
The child’s mother, Tiffany, then sent an email to the school principal, William J. Murphy, on Dec. 11 describing in detail her daughter’s “racially insensitive experience.”
“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,” the email noted.
Initially, Murphy responded by defending the importance of the program and later forwarded the mother’s concerns to Nancy Burger, director of Outdoor Environmental Education for the YMCA Storer Camps.
Burger out-and-out denied Birchett’s claims, saying the "Underground Railroad" was the students’ favorite evening program.
As Birchett’s story emerged, another parent, Regina Crutchfield, came forward, citing similar experiences by her daughter Brooklyn Jones in fifth grade.
“My daughter said she was scared. One of the guys (camp instructors) re-enacted killing a deputy,” Crutchfield was quoted as saying by 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.”
It was only after Mark Fancher, attorney for the Michigan ACLU Racial Justice Project, asked Kevin Washington, president and CEO of the YMCA USA, to end that program that it was canceled.
“This one little distraught black camper matters so much because as a human family, we can't allow slavery to claim even one more victim,” Rancher wrote in an opinion piece for MLive. "If participants in the Underground Railroad activity who believe it gave them a sense of what the black experience is like can't understand this, the activity actually failed them.”
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