School district officials defend ‘slave letter writing’ assignment at Miss. school

Assignment invited students to write letter in mindset of slave writing back to family in Africa

Officials at a Mississippi school district have addressed the public about a controversial assignment called the “slavery letter writing activity.”

A screenshot of the writing assignment given to students at Purvis Middle School has been shared and discussed heavily, with several online commentators finding issue with the tasks suggested. Lamar County School District Superintendent Steven Hampton has confirmed the activity was doled out during an eighth-grade history class Wednesday, according to local news station WLOX. The assignment was intended to show students the “atrocities and negatives of slavery,” according to Hampton’s interview with the news station.

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The directions, shown in the screenshot of the assignment, encourage the eighth-graders to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and compose a letter to family members in Africa, describing the slave experience. Hampton contends the teacher’s purpose was for students to “gain empathy” for those Black people who lived during that era.

“We do not discriminate against race. We want to be sensitive to what happened in the past,” Hampton said.

Educators, parents and others who read the assignment were not pleased with the explanation for the assignment. Jarrius Adams, president of Young Democrats Mississippi, told the Daily Beast he found the classwork for Purvis students to be “tone deaf” no matter what the intentions were.

“If I were a parent of a student in the classroom, I would be (upset). There are proper ways to educate students about the history of this nation — this was not one of them,” Adams added.

Brett Jones, who described himself as a Virginia teacher on Facebook, said the assignment and those who did not find issue with it are both alarming.

Such assignments on formerly common American traditions, including slave auctions, have invited national criticism and social media mockery for several teachers in the past. One Georgia teacher in 2017 got complaints from parents about encouraging children to dress in “period attire” for the Civil War. Another teacher made international headlines for simulating the Underground Railroad as a class project.

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Efforts to teach students in seemingly creative ways about some of the darkest periods in American history can negatively impact Black students, Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas-Austin, told USA Today.

“Unfortunately, (slavery is) addressed often in ways that are either marginalizing or it’s the only way that Black people ... are brought into the curriculum,” Brown told the publication.

According to Hampton, Purvis Middle School administrators have already addressed the teacher and there will be further discussion with the teacher from administrators at the district level.