Enraged Mom Speaks Out After Kids Picked Cotton As a 'Game' & Sang Slave Songs at School

Kids pick cotton on school field trip
Fox 46 Charlotte

A mom from Rock Hill, South Carolina, is upset after her son and his classmates were asked to pick cotton and sing slave songs while on a recent school field trip. Jessica Blanchard spoke openly about the heartbreak she experienced when she saw video of her son on the field trip and why she was upset that instructors provided no context to students about slavery. Instead, the activities were meant to seem like a game. "I think it's misguided, and maybe ignorance on their part," she explained.

  • Fifth-graders were on a trip to the Carroll School when they were reportedly asked to pick cotton and sing slave songs with strong lyrics.

    According to Fox 46 Charlotte, a teacher took video of kids from Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School, which showed them being instructed to sing songs with lyrics such as "I like it when you don't talk back, make money for me. I like it when you fill the sack. I like it when you don't talk back. Make money for me." 

    They also participated in picking cotton in the field, which was meant to seem like a game.

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  • The teacher sent parents the video to show them what their children had learned on their trip, but Blanchard was outraged over what she saw.

    "I'm livid right now,"  Blanchard said in tears. "I'm African-American and my ancestors picked cotton. Why would I want my son to pick cotton and think it's fun?"

    Parents had been asked to sign a permission slip for the trip, which did mention that there would be "cotton picking" as part of the lesson plan, but it was proposed as a way to educate the kids on the Great Depression -- not slavery. In fact, Blanchard's 10-year-old son, Jamari, said he had no idea he was singing an old slave song and said the kids were never taught that cotton was picked by African-American slaves.

    "I think it's making a mockery," Blanchard continued. "A mockery of slavery. A mockery of what our people went through."

    Jamari added that his classmates thought that the cotton picking "was funny" and said he personally thought it was a game. "It was a contest," he said. "Whoever picked the least amount of cotton had to hold a big sack called 'Big Mama.'" 

    But his mother was clearly devastated. "I just can't put my feelings into words," Blanchard said. "That's how upset I am."

  • An instructor at the Carroll School denies turning the lesson plan into a "race issue" and says the activity was all in good fun.

    The Carroll School was built in 1929 by and for African-American students as part of the Rosenwald Initiative, a collection of 5,000 schools that were funded by the then-president of Sears, Julius Rosenwald. The school closed its doors in 1954 but was later restored and taken over by Rock Hill Schools, which uses the facility as a teaching center for African-American history during the Great Depression.

    Will Cathcart, 81, a former student who is now an instructor at the Carroll School, defended the lesson plan when interviewed. Cathcart attended the school in 1943 and was the son of sharecroppers. He said he only wanted to share with the next generation what kinds of things he and his family needed to do to be able to survive. 

    "We need innovation in the education system," he said. "Not just lecturing children in a classroom telling them something. There's nothing better than hands on." Cathcart also said that the 'Big Mama' sack "is just humor."

    "This program is not about that [slavery]," he argued. "This program here is centered around the Great Depression of the 1930s, so slavery is not the predominant issue." Cathcart added that throughout the Great Depression, cotton was the main crop in South Carolina, and the lesson shares the experience with children so that they may learn what life used to be like. 

    When asked if the activity trivializes slavery, Cathcart was very direct in his feelings. "I'd certainly love to answer that question because I deal with this issue all the time," he said. "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.

    But according to Blanchard, that's not the issue. The problem is that her son had no context for what he was doing and was not made aware that the songs and the cotton picking were former slave tasks. 

  • Administrators at the school have apologized for the misguided lesson and pledged to do better in the future.

    When asked why the school didn't teach the history of slaves and cotton, a spokesman from the school district, Mychal Frost, stopped the interview with Cathcart. Frost told reporters that slavery was part of the third grade curriculum, not the fifth grade one, which was why they only focused on the Great Depression on the trip. He then shut the interview down and refused any further questions.

    Blanchard said she still supports the Carroll School and its mission, despite her son's experience, but she's still baffled at how this lesson plan came to be. "I support the Carroll School. I support everything else about it," she said. "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."

    Before the news segment aired, John Jones, chief academic and accountability officer for Rock Hill Schools, reportedly called Blanchard and personally apologized. He told her that the program "meant well" and pledged to work with her to make improvements so no one will be offended by the trip in the future.

    And Rock Hills Schools gave a statement about the trip to reporters: 

    "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[ed] 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 this era in American history." -- Mychal Frost, Director of Marketing and Communications, Rock Hill Schools."
  • But it seems that someone is still upset about the incident. On Friday, the school went into a lockdown after an anonymous threat was called in.

    Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School was placed on a lockdown for about an hour Friday afternoon after "threatening phone calls" were made to school officials, according to Fox 46. Although it is unclear what threats were were being made, a source confirmed that they were made in response to the field trip the fifth-graders took and the resulting news coverage the story received. 

    "Out of an abundance of caution, EBES is currently under a preventive lockdown due to an anonymous threat to the school," the school wrote on its Facebook page.

    About an hour later the lockdown was lifted and the school day resumed.

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