ACLU, York County leaders condemn Rock Hill field trip that involved picking cotton

Carroll School in Rock Hill was built in 1929 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Carroll School in Rock Hill was built in 1929 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rock Hill school district

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday released a statement condemning a recent Rock Hill school district field trip at which students picked cotton.

“This activity was supposedly to educate the children about the history of slavery, but instead cheapened a horrific time in America’s history,” reads the statement. “Rock Hill School District should consider the optics of such a learning experience, and that this type of curriculum does not convey the seriousness and reality of slavery in America.”

Rock Hill school district leaders said the lesson was about the Great Depression, not slavery.

“The Carroll School field experience is a unique learning opportunity for all fifth grade students in Rock Hill Schools’ elementary schools,” reads a statement from Aaron Sheffield, spokesperson with the district. “Students have been visiting the Carroll School for the past fifteen years as a part of studying the Great Depression in the school curriculum.”

The Carroll School, now a place where Rock Hill fifth graders receive hands-on history lessons, was built in 1929. The school is one of more than 5,300 buildings in 15 states that was built by and for African-Americans.

The Feb. 20 trip garnered attention from the ACLU and Rock Hill community leaders after a mother told Fox 46 Charlotte that she was offended by the lesson her 10-year-old son and his Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School classmates took part in.

“I think it’s making a mockery. A mockery of slavery. A mockery of what our people went through,” Jessica Blanchard told Fox 46.

According to the Rock Hill school district, parents must sign a permission slip for students to attend the field trip. The permission slip states:

“To understand what life would have been like for students at that school during the Great Depression Era, students will be participating in hands-on activities with sewing, planting a garden, picking cotton and food preservation.”

While hands-on lessons are important, it is sometimes difficult to convey a message through simulations, said Margaret Gillikin, social studies education director at Winthrop University.

“We can’t fully replicate the experiences of people in the past,” she said. “These are important activities for our students to be involved in, field trips like this. It helps students see that real people lived and experienced history, but I do think we need to be really careful using simulations.”

During the Rock Hill lesson, the students sang a song with these lyrics: “I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don’t talk back. Make money for me,” reports Fox 46.

The Rock Hill school district statement says: “The song that is sung by the students as they participate in picking cotton, as it was done in the Great Depression time period, was originally written by an African-American instructor who currently works with students at the Carroll School.”

“He did not intend it to sound like, or in any way be a ‘slave song’ as it has been characterized,” the statement continues. “The lyrics came from his experience as an African-American farmer picking cotton and making money for his family in the Great Depression time period.”

Shaundra Scott, South Carolina ACLU executive director, said the activity is misguided.

“The system of slavery that existed for 400 years in America should not and can not be reduced to something that would appear as a lighthearted event, comprised of enslaved human beings that were happy to work as slaves,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

“Africans and African-Americans suffered severe trauma, mental and physical abuse, and were stripped of their humanity daily. Having 5th grade children pick cotton while singing ‘make money for me’ undermines the valuable lesson of the inhumanity of slavery, reducing it to bonfire antics and fiction,” Scott continued.

Rep. John King, D-York, said in a prepared statement that the lesson did not reflect the true history of sharecropping and slavery.

“What happened on this field trip was insensitive and inaccurate,” King said. “The true history of slavery and sharecropping is one of violence and oppression, it is a history that needs to be taught with appropriate weight. ... When we portray a sugar-coated version of history, one of happily picking cotton and singing songs, then we miss an opportunity to teach the truth.”

Sharecropping was a system in which people lived on and worked land in exchange for giving a share of the crop to the land owner, according to the Public Broadcasting Service. The system, combined with high interest rates and unpredictable harvests, often kept people tied to the land and in debt to the landlord.

School district leaders are working with Blanchard and reviewing the Carroll School activity “to make sure that it is understood that in no way is the activity or any singing tied to slavery or singing slave songs,” reads the statement.

Blanchard said district leaders have reached out to her.

“Our main goal was not to see how many people we could get the story out to but for the school district to hear our concern and make a change. They have reached out to us and I do believe going forward they will improve from this,” Blanchard wrote in a message to The Herald.

Gillikin said she hopes the incident does not discourage teachers from being creative in their lessons.

“It’s a great resource in our community that we have (Carroll School),” she said.

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Amanda Harris covers issues related to children and families in York, Chester and Lancaster County for The Herald. Amanda works with local schools, parents and community members to address important topics such as school security, mental health and the opioid epidemic. She graduated from Winthrop University.

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