Leaders of a Mississippi school district are apologizing for an assignment that asked students to pretend they were enslaved people and write letters to relatives “back in Africa.”
The “slave letter writing activity” was part of a history lesson assigned to eighth graders at Purvis Middle School earlier this week, Lamar County Schools Superintendent Steven Hampton confirmed to WDAM.
Hampton said the exercise was intended to show students “just how horrible slavery was and to gain empathy for what it was like to be a slave,” according to the news station.
Parents and students say it missed the mark, however.
Backlash was swift after screenshots of the lesson began circulating online Wednesday. The assignment asked students to “pretend like you’re a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and “write a letter to your family back in Africa or in another American state describing your life,” images show.
“Someone needs to explain,” Black Lives Matter Mississippi wrote on Twitter.
Jarrius Adams, president of Mississippi Young Democrats, decried the assignment as “extremely tone deaf and inappropriate.”
“It does not matter what the intention was, the impact is the only thing that matters,” Adams told The Daily Beast. “If I were a parent of a student in the classroom, I would be pissed. There are proper ways to educate students about the history of this nation — this was not one of them.”
Others shared his sentiment.
“The level of cultural incompetence this assignment is displaying is alarming,” one woman wrote in response to a Facebook post. “The school/district office needs to take action.”
“I’m sure the teacher was trying to do some sort of ‘take a look from another’s perspective’ thing, but uh romanticizing slavery is not it,” wrote another.
In a letter addressed to parents, Purvis Middle School principal Frank Bunnell explained the activity was the final slide in a “purchased PowerPoint point presentation” about the atrocities of slavery.
He said the slide had been taken out of context, but apologized to parents “for something like this happening under my watch,” according to screenshots of the letter.
“There’s no excuse to downplay a practice that (even after abolished) spurs unjust laws, unfair economic practices, inhumane treatment and suppression of a people,” Bunnell wrote. “Steps have already been taken to make sure it never happens again.”
A Wisconsin middle school faced similar criticism in February after a Black History Month lesson asked students how they would punish enslaved workers who were “disobedient.” Several teachers were placed on leave after the incident, McClatchy News reported.
Hampton said administrators at Purvis Middle School have addressed the teacher who gave the assignment and that the incident will be handled at the district level, according to WDAM.
McClatchy News reached out to the Lamar County School District for further comment and is awaiting response.