A South Carolina mother is outraged after her 10-year-old son, and his classmates, were told to pick cotton and sing a slave song with words like, “I like it when you don’t talk back, make money for me,” as part of a class field trip during Black History Month.
“I’m livid right now,” said Jessica Blanchard, before wiping away tears. “I’m African-American and my ancestors picked cotton. Why would I want my son to pick cotton and think it’s fun?”
Cell phone video taken by a teacher and sent to parents show fifth graders from Ebenezer Avenue Elementary in Rock Hill, picking cotton. Another video shows kids hurrying to fill their sacks. In each video, the kids are being instructed to sing: “I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don’t talk back. Make money for me.”
Blanchard’s son, Jamari, says he didn’t understand what he was singing. He said the instructors did not explain how cotton fields were harvested by African-American slaves.
“Did they talk about how slaves used to pick cotton?” FOX 46 investigative reporter Matt Grant asked.
“No,” said Jamari.
A permission slip, which parents had to sign, does mention “cotton picking” as part of a history lesson. Not on slavery, but on the Great Depression.
For 15 years, Rock Hill fifth graders have been coming to the Carroll School, which was built in 1929 by and for African-Americans. The school, part of the Rosenwald Initiative, was the product of grant money donated by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears. More than 5,000 schools were created in 15 states.
The Carroll School closed in 1954 and was later restored by Rock Hill Schools, which took over the building in 2004. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a teaching center for African-American history during the Great Depression, when the school was built.
The district calls the field trip a “unique learning opportunity” that promotes “understanding about our past” and “helps students make real-life connections.”
“What did your other classmates think about all this?” asked Grant.
“They thought it was funny,” said Jamari, who says he thought picking cotton was a fun game.
“It was a contest,” he said. “Whoever picked the least amount of cotton had to hold a big sack called ‘Big Mama.'”
“I just can’t put my feelings into words,” his mother said. “That’s how upset I am.”
On a foggy morning, FOX 46 visited the Carroll School and met with Wali Cathcart, 81, an instructor and former student. He attended the school in 1943. The son of sharecroppers, this former cotton farmer now shows kids firsthand what he and his parents had to do to survive.
“We need innovation in the education system,” said Cathcart. “Not just lecturing children in a classroom telling them something. There’s nothing better than hands on.”
Cathcart denies turning cotton picking into a “race” issue. He says the ‘Big Mama’ sack “is just humor.”
“What do you say to people who find this offensive and say this trivializes slavery?” asked Grant, on behalf of Blanchard.
“I’d certainly love to answer that question because I deal with this issue all the time,” said Cathcart. “One of the problems when it comes to African-American people is that they fail to understand history in its proper context, and, because of that, we are at a disadvantage today.”
Cathcart said the kids need to know what their parents went through. The lessons of slavery are taught in third grade, and elsewhere, he said.
“This program is not about that [slavery],” he said. “This program here is centered around the Great Depression of the 1930s, so slavery is not the predominent issue.”
Growing up on a farm, cotton “provided the living for us,” said Cathcart. “That was money that we got to survive and live on.”
Growing up, “cotton was still the main crop” during the Great Depression. He wants today’s kids to know what life used to be like.
The problem, according to Blanchard, is that her son no idea he was singing a slave song or that slaves used to pick cotton. FOX 46 asked why the school skips over the history of slaves being forced to pick cotton and if it should be mentioned.
That is when Rock Hill Schools spokesman Mychal Frost stopped the interview.
“That’s done in third grade, Matt, that is not the topic of this interview,” said Frost, putting his hand in front of the camera. “The interview is about the Great Depression. You can continue the interview but we’re not going to go off script. Do you understand?”
FOX 46 never agreed to any ground rules for the interview and did not agree to limit questions to what the district wanted us to ask.
“This interview is over,” Frost said a few moments later.
As for Blanchard and her son, both say they support the Carroll School and its mission. However, this was a history lesson they felt went too far.
“I support the Carroll School. I support everything else about it,” said Blanchard. “But I don’t understand, at the end, why do you make it a point to pick cotton and sing those songs? I think it’s misguided, and maybe ignorance on their part.”
FOX 46 is getting results. Before the story aired, the Chief Academic and Accountability Officer for Rock Hill Schools, Dr. John Jones, called to personally apologize, Blanchard said. She said he told her the program “meant well” but pledged to work with her to make changes to the program to ensure that it is not offensive to anyone.
“Please know that we will be following up on your concerns and will communicate with you,” Dr. Jones told Blanchard in an email shared with FOX 46. “I have contacted the school and have requested a copy of the field trip form.”
Rock Hill Schools statement:
“The Carroll School field experience is a unique learning opportunity for all 5th grade students in Rock Hill Schools’ elementary schools. As one of the only remaining Rosenwald Schools in operation, the school exists to promote understanding about our past, specifically the Great Depression and schooling in America. The students are afford an opportunity to learn directly from two local men, one of whom is a former student of The Carroll School, who lead students through a variety of hands-on activities and experiences. As part of the fifth-grade curriculum, students study the Great Depression time period, and this field trip helps students make real-life connections to ths era in American history.” -Mychal Frost, Director of Marketing and Communications, Rock Hill Schools.