In response to a planned field trip to a Confederate cemetery, a Fayette County father told the principal: “The true history of slavery is one of violence and oppression. It is a history that needs to be taught with appropriate weight. Something has gone terribly wrong when children are asked to clean the graves of those who enslaved, killed and oppressed their ancestors.”
Photo: Special to the AJC
Photo: Special to the AJC

Is sprucing up a Confederate cemetery an appropriate school project? 

Parent says Fayette County charter’s school field trip is offensive

When a Fayette County father glanced at a field trip permission slip from his daughter's charter school last week, he was stunned. The destination printed atop the form said "Confederate Soldier Cemetery," and the mission, according to his seventh grader, was to clean it. The form stated students would be visiting the cemetery once a week over four weeks.

This is the permission slip that came home last week to a parent whose child attends a state approved charter school in Fayette County. 

The father, who is African-American, reached out to the sponsoring teacher at Liberty Tech Charter in the town of Brooks to voice concerns, saying the activity was inappropriate for a black child or any child in a public school class. The teacher explained the community service project was suggested by a parent, and she told the dad she hoped the cemetery could be disassociated from the Confederate graves in it. Students, she said, would weed and help combat erosion at the cemetery. She said they would not be touching the graves, according to the dad. 

The father asked me to withhold his name for concerns about fallout to his daughter.  

While he had seen the cemetery in the heart of Brooks, the father visited it again Friday and concluded disassociating the site from the Confederacy would be impossible. Along with a large sign proclaiming, "This cemetery is maintained by Sons of Confederate Veterans," Confederate flags adorn some of the graves. (Not all the graves are former Confederate soldiers.)

Is a cemetery with strong Confederate ties an appropriate field trip project for a public school? 
Photo: Special to the AJC

In an email, the father explained to Liberty Tech principal Melissa King why the project was ill-conceived:

Given the history of the confederates — who fought a war mainly to protect a society of which slavery was an integral part — I do not believe this a suitable assignment for a child; especially an African-American child whose ancestors gave their lives to gain freedom.

The true history of slavery is one of violence and oppression. It is a history that needs to be taught with appropriate weight. Something has gone terribly wrong when children are asked to clean the graves of those who enslaved, killed and oppressed their ancestors.

This may be an excellent opportunity to implement some training and awareness on issues encountered by diverse students. Understanding cultural differences and weighing the long-term impact of assignments that deal with history and race could spare many students from unintentional alienation and humiliation.

I understand that the original idea of this project was to support the community and the thought is that the confederate history could be dissociated from the cemetery and community service. I visited the graveyard and it there isn’t no way to dissociate the graveyard from its historical context. There are confederate flags that are very present as well as a very large sign for the Sons of the confederacy.

I am not confident that for this field trip there has been an assessment, consideration and safeguards put into place to protect diverse students from the emotional pain of past events...It would be great if the criteria for field trips can be reassessed to also included the considering the emotional well-being being of children — from the perspective of those who could be negatively impacted.

I also reached out to principal King with several questions about the field trip.

Did Liberty Tech Charter ask students to clean a Confederate cemetery?

No, students will not be cleaning any cemeteries, Confederate or non-Confederate. The goal of this opportunity is to allow students to visit multiple cemeteries in close proximity to the school to understand their importance to the community. A specific focus will be on who in a community is responsible for preserves and maintains these public areas. Students will be learning this information by observations, interviewing professionals, and researching not by cleaning.

Is this project a service project or an academic one?

This is not a service project and is academic in nature to give our students an opportunity to better understand who is responsible for preserving and maintaining graveyards. The particular graveyard in question has had a major erosion problem. Several Eagle Scout projects have been conducted at this graveyard. The students thought it would be a location that would help them in their research to better understand how communities preserve these public areas. Other graveyards in local proximity to the school have been discussed and will be visited.

Who suggested it?

We asked our entire school community to help us generate ideas on what are some real world problems that our students could work on. Our middle school-students had a variety of projects from which to choose, one of which is to answer the question, “How do communities preserve graveyards and promote awareness regarding these public areas?” This particular idea was suggested by a parent but each student individually selected which academic project they would work on.

What did the teacher mean when she said she hoped the Confederate elements of the cemetery could be "disassociated" from the project?

The cemeteries were selected based on proximity to the school, and cemeteries were not selected because they are Confederate. Liberty Teach Charter Schools celebrates and values the diversity of its student body. The school would never require its students or staff to take part in an activity or experience that would undermine its commitment to fostering the strength of diversity.

Liberty Tech decided to shift the cemetery visits from Wednesday mornings to Saturday mornings, which the principal told me was due to transportation concerns. (The children were going to walk the .03 miles to the cemetery.) 

"Due to being a one-school district and a state charter school, we do not own buses or have extensive funding for the renting of transportation. Our No. 1 concern is always the safety of our students, hence the change in the project plan. Furthermore, the breadth of the project required more time than one hour per week allotment in order to properly make observations while utilizing project based learning," said King.

What are your thoughts about this project? I spent a few hours today reading about how schools still grapple with teaching students about the Civil War and slavery, especially in the South.

I found this Atlantic article compelling. 

The writer notes:

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelmingly agree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Projects and field trips of this nature can go wrong, as occurred with a Catholic school in Louisiana  and a private school in New York. 

In 2016, I wrote about the playing of an Underground Railroad game by a Cobb fifth grade class and the objections of a grandmother who felt rolling the dice to travel the railroad trivialized the horrors of slavery. 

At the time, I talked to experts who cautioned that projects around race and ethnic identity must be thought out carefully so students are not hurt or marginalized. 

Your views?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.