WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – An African-American grandmother is outraged after her granddaughter’s fourth-grade school teacher led the class in a role-playing game that included mentions of shackles, plantations, severe punishment and simulated slaves running toward freedom.
Denett, the grandmother, asked to only be identified by her first name because she fears retaliation toward her family or granddaughter.
Denett’s granddaughter attends Codington Elementary School in Wilmington, and the child brought home papers from the slavery board game on Monday, Denett said.
“Slavery is not a game,” Denett said. “It happened to black people. It happened to my ancestors. They were slaves.”
In the Underground Railroad board game called Escaping Slavery, teachers gave students a Freedom Punch Card, that reads, “If your group runs into trouble four times, you will be severely punished and sent back to the plantation to work as a slave.”
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of safe houses and people in the United States helping fugitive slaves escape to free states.
Her granddaughter told Denett the teacher told students to write their “slave name” on the back of the card.
“After the four punches, were they going to hang them? Were they going to kill them? What else was going to go on after this?” Denett asked. “You’re teaching these kids: slave, plantation.”
The game papers show cartoon character depictions of slave families and shackles.
“On this one, you can see pictures where they have shackles,” said Denett. “This is a game that the school system is probably purchasing online for the kids to participate in, and in this day and time, this is horrifying. I don’t know how other people feel about it, but I think it’s terrible.”
Denett was visibly upset by the slavery board game and is demanding the school system stop using it to teach children. She said she did not contact the principal or teacher after seeing the game due to concern that her granddaughter would face retaliation.
“Pull this game. Pull any game that mentions the words ‘slave’ and ‘plantation’ in the school system,” said Denett. “Black people are already hurt enough. We go through a lot in this day and time.”
Denett said she believes there are better ways to teach children about slavery.
“Who would give this to a child to play in an elementary school, any school, in this day and time?” Denett said. “It kind of hurts to know that this is going on, and especially here in Wilmington.”
The school system responds
WECT contacted a New Hanover County Schools spokesperson about game, and a school official defended its use.
The spokesperson said the Black History Month activity was conducted in small groups with students discussing the activity with the teacher. The overall purpose was to help dispel myths about slavery and help students understand it was a horrible ordeal, according to a spokesperson.
In a statement emailed to WECT, Codington Elementary School Principal Graham Elmore wrote that fourth-grade social studies teachers used the “Monopoly-like game” in January, and it was obtained from the educational website Teachers Pay Teachers.
“The purpose was to play a role to increase interest and enthusiasm for historical events,” the principal wrote. “The teachers wanted to share how the people communicated and worked for change and equality in their communities.”
The assignment, copyrighted by Wise Guys, Teachers Pay Teachers website.
“This activity is by no means intended to disregard the fact that slavery was an inhumane and unnecessary period for so many people,” according to the product description.
The board game is part of a larger activity teachers have used for the past two years, according to Elmore. The principal confirmed a card in the game references going back to the plantation, but there was “no emphasis on picking any names,” according to a spokesperson.
“Many of the activities in the game related to vocabulary relating to Underground Railroad, interpreting quotes from Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln,” Elmore wrote. “They also researched facts and statistics related to slavery and the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.”
The unit was conducted to satisfy required NC Social Studies standards, the principal wrote.
“As of today, administration and teachers state that no complaints or further questions have been asked to them to learn more about the activity,” the principal wrote.
Not the first time
Other schools in the U.S. have used different Underground Railroad slavery games that generated outage among parents, including in Virginia and Phoenix.
Denett said any game that trivializes the suffering of African-American slaves is unacceptable.
“I have to try and explain black history and the ancestry part of it, and then you turn around and get this (game),” Denett said. “It hurts because my ancestors went through this. To find out this is still going on, it makes me angry, and it hurts, but angry more than anything.”
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