Earlier this week, an assignment asked eighth-graders at Purvis Middle School to “pretend like you are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation” and “write a letter to your family back in Africa… describing your life.”
Purvis Middle School initially referred The Daily Beast to the Lamar County School District for comment, and the district did not immediately respond to the request on Wednesday. But Frank Bunnell, the principal of Purvis Middle School, sent an email to parents, obtained by The Daily Beast, in which he confirmed the exercise was part of an eighth-grade history lesson and apologized for “something like this happening under my watch.”
The school confirmed to The Daily Beast that Bunnell wrote the email.
The principal also argued that the slide, which was part of a PowerPoint presentation, was taken out of context.
“A person could read just the assignment and draw a very unrealistic view of the true tragedies that occurred. That was not intended,” he wrote. “However, intent does not excuse anything. There is no excuse to downplay a practice that (even after abolished) spurs unjust laws, unfair economic practices, inhumane treatment, and suppression of a people.”
The exercise cheerfully suggests topics students might cover in their letter. “You may discuss the journey to America, as well as the day-to-day tasks you perform.”
During this “journey,” known as the Middle Passage, more than two million of the roughly 12 million Africans kidnapped and shipped to the Americas died.
Activists in a state with a long, ugly, and lethal history of racism were enraged.
“I don’t know how a logical person teaches this,” said Jeremy Marquell Bridges, social media manager for Black Lives Matter Mississippi, which posted the image of the exercise on Wednesday after, he said, it was sent by the parent of a student. “Like someone who went to school to teach children could think this exercise was helpful in any way. It’s not helpful, it’s hurtful.”
He was far from alone.
“It is extremely tone deaf and inappropriate to have Middle Schoolers put themselves in the shoes of slaves without proper context,” said Jarrius Adams, the president of Young Democrats Mississippi. “It does not matter what the intention was, the impact is the only thing that matters.”
“If I were a parent of a student in the classroom, I would be pissed. There are proper ways to educate students about the history of this nation—this was not one of them,” Adams added.
One bullet point on the exercise tells students: “You may also want to tell about the family you live with/work for and how you pass your time when you aren’t working.”
As Reginald Virgil, the president of Black Lives Matter Mississippi, told The Daily Beast, “work” is a bizarrely polite euphemism for slave labor.
“It’s just another way that Mississippi is trying to whitewash its history,” he said.
Although just over 50 percent of the students in Mississippi public schools are Black, Purvis Middle School is an exception. Just over 12 percent of the students at this school are Black and more than 80 percent are white.
“This is Klan territory,” Bridges told The Daily Beast.
For Bridges, who went to Mississippi public schools, the flippant exercise in slave cosplay was shocking. “I've never seen anything like this before,” he said.
But this exercise has precedent, most notably in Omnibus III: Reformation to the Present, a popular Christian history textbook co-edited by Douglas Wilson. The Idaho-based evangelical pastor hosted a 2004 conference defending Southern slavery, and was once called the “Taliban on the Polouse” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In Omnibus III, which includes writing assignments such as “Uncle Tom's Abortion Clinic,” there is another titled “A Slave Letter.” This assignment asks students to “pretend you are a slave who lives far away from your family. Write a letter to your wife/husband/children. Tell them how you are doing, what your plans are, etc.”
Students can also pretend they are slave owners and “write a letter to a relative or friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.”
A later exercise tells students to pretend they are slaves on the run, asking, “Do you have hunting dogs? Take turns hiding in the woods and let the dogs find you.”
It was unclear if the lesson that caused the uproar at Purvis Middle was inspired by that text, and neither the School nor the Lamar County School District immediately responded to additional requests for comment late Wednesday.
In 2017, the district launched an investigation after a Snapchat user with the name “KKK” sent messages about students to students at another middle school in the Lamar County School District. Forrest County, directly to its east, was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous Civil War general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Nearly one hundred years later in that same county, the Ku Klux Klan murdered civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer after he’d offered to pay the poll tax for Black voters.
Although Mississippi’s population is nearly 40 percent Black, the highest proportion in the nation, the state is governed by Republicans, who hold all seven state-wide offices and majorities in the state Senate and House.
The state has long grappled with how to appropriately contextualize its troubled past. In November, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves included a $3 million earmark to combat what he called “revisionist history” that is “poisoning a generation.”
That same month, Donald Trump appointed Reeves’ predecessor, former Gov. Phil Bryant, to his “Advisor 1776 Commission,” an educational panel with the goal of “better enabl(ing) a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776.” President Joe Biden axed the commission by executive order his first day in office.
In other words, locals said, the school’s mistake rubbed salt in open wounds.
“They want us to think slavery was polite,” Virgil told The Daily Beast.