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Living-History Lessons Resurrect Old Wounds

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One of the most popular activities at Camp Muskingum in Carrollton, Ohio, is a role-playing exercise in which children pretend to be runaway slaves moving along the Underground Railroad.

But the activity at the nonprofit educational camp stirred up controversy this month after the parents of an African-American child who took part in the program complained that the experience left their son feeling humiliated.

"Black people don't take slavery lightly," said Larry Goodman, whose 10-year-old stepson attended the three-day camp with his 5th grade classmates from Brimfield Elementary School in Brimfield, Ohio. "For any child to portray something as brutal as slavery is too much."

Larry Goodman

Mr. Goodman is among several black parents around the country who in recent years have complained about classroom role-playing activities that touch on the painful subject of slavery. Social studies teachers have increasingly turned to simulations and role-playing as a way to enliven a potentially dull subject for students, but these incidents suggest that, when it comes to slavery, teachers may be treading a fine line.

Since January, parents of black students in Milwaukee, Scottsdale, Ariz., and, most recently, Torrance, Calif., all complained after their children were asked to participate in mock slave auctions staged as part of history lessons.

And when one of the nation's living-history museums, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, put on a re-enactment of a slave auction for the first time in 1994, the event drew picketing from local representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"The definition of slavery teaches all you need to know about it, and then you go on to the next thing," said Richard Anderson, the president of the Portage County, Ohio, chapter of the NAACP, which is near Brimfield Elementary. "There's so many people concerned with reminding black people of where they were."

Drawing Distinctions

Teachers and experts on history education interviewed last week said that slavery is a necessary and important topic in American history. They disagreed, however, over the wisdom of involving children in the kinds of role-playing that might stir up emotions on the sensitive subject.

Gary B. Nash

"It evokes a great deal of passion among people because the vestiges of that experience are still just under the surface," said Philip Bigler, who teaches an 11th grade humanities class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. He asks his students to re-enact the trial of abolitionist John Brown, rather than have them depict slave auctions or other such events that might put black students in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Gary B. Nash, the director of the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he draws a distinction between classroom simulations of slave auctions and a simulation of the Underground Railroad.

"Within a history classroom, a re-enactment of slaves taking flight and seeking refuge in the North by way of the Underground Railroad could be a valuable and maybe even inspiring lesson," Mr. Nash said. "After all, it is a liberating story."

But in Brimfield, Mr. Goodman said the Underground Railroad activity made his stepson "feel stupid."

"One of the things that made him feel more uncomfortable is that his school is 90 percent white, and there are three black kids in the entire 5th grade," he said.

Brimfield Elementary, like many schools in the Akron area, has for several years sent its 5th graders to the three-day camp program, which is known as Nature's Classroom. In the Underground Railroad simulation, groups of 12 to 15 students play the part of runaway slaves posing as a traveling choir as they make their way from Tennessee to Ohio.

Creating Empathy

Camp educators play the roles of bounty hunter, abolitionist, sheriff, preacher, gravedigger, and merchant, whom the "slaves" meet at six stations along the way. At one point, students huddle in a windowless room while bounty hunters bang on the walls. At another, a sheriff fires blanks at their feet.

"The purpose of it obviously was to create some empathy--to have an understanding of what it's like not to have freedom," Rose Heintz, the Brimfield Elementary principal, said. She attended the program this year along with the 5th graders.

She said a house near the school was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, and students routinely study slavery as part of a unit on Ohio history in the 4th grade. Students pick up the subject again the following year when they read about the Civil War.

School officials, nonetheless, plan to review the issue and decide whether to continue or modify the role-playing activity.

"It was meant to be a living-history lesson," Ms. Heintz said, "and I guess it backfired."

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