In Depth

US school apologises for slave role play

Students in Virginia told to overcome physical obstacles to mimic slaves who took part in the Underground Railroad

A school in the US has apologised for trivialising slavery after creating a game for their students based on the Underground Railroad - the network of secret routes and safe houses established during the early to mid-19th century, and used by African-American slaves in the south to escape into free states in the north. 

As part of recognising Black History Month in the US, students in the third, fourth and fifth year at Madison’s Trust Elementary school in Brambleton, Virginia, were given a lecture about the Underground Railroad.

According to Wayde Byard, a Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman, the students were then divided into groups of six and instructed to tackle a series of physical obstacles, such as moving through plastic hoops without knocking them over.

“It trivialises something that is important,” Byard told The Washington Post. “There was an error made here... slavery is not a game.”

The task, first reported by local newspaper the Loudoun Times-Mirror, was supposed to teach teamwork, communication and cooperation, according to the school.

Byard said the students were not assigned the role of slaves. But parents of the children involved pointed out that aside from abolitionists, who wouldn’t have needed to overcome physical obstacles, there could be no other role for students to play in an Underground Railroad simulation because African Americans used the network of trails and hiding places to escape slavery.

“It’s awful,” local NAACP President Michelle Thomas told NBC. “It’s really insulting. It makes me feel unsafe because I have kids in Loudoun County Public Schools.”

“It shows that there’s some implicit bias problems right here at this school,” she added.

Thomas, a pastor, told the Post that parents of an African American student contacted her about the exercise after the child told his parents he played a runaway slave in class. Putting the boy in that situation, she said, “completely demeans him” and his ancestors, and makes light of the “terroristic institution of slavery”.

“We don’t know how much of this is willful ignorance, how much of it is white privilege and how much of it is an intentional racist action or if it’s a combination of all three,” she said. “It’s unacceptable, and it undermines the community and the education that our children receive.”

The principal at Madison’s Trust Elementary School David Stewart acknowledged the mistake and said they would attempt to rectify the situation.

“The lesson was culturally insensitive to our students and families,” he said. “I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community.”

He added the school would create a team of parents and school employees to help the institution with equity and cultural responsiveness.

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