KENNESAW, Ga. — A new battle line has formed in the national debate over Civil War flags and symbols this time at a Georgia school not far from a mountaintop where Confederate soldiers fired their cannons at Union troops more than a century ago.
The school near Kennesaw Mountain last month invited fifth-graders to dress up as characters from the Civil War.
A white student, dressed as a plantation owner, said to a 10-year-old black classmate, “You are my slave,” said the black child’s parent, Corrie Davis.
“What I want them to understand is the pain it caused my son,” Davis said of her child, who did not dress up that day. “This is bringing them back to a time when people were murdered, when people died, when people owned people,” she said.
Davis recorded an emotional video in which she explains how she was affected by what happened to her son. It has attracted about 70,000 views on Facebook. The distraught mother said she met with school officials, but was dismayed when they refused to promise that they would never conduct a class in that way again. The issue could come to a head in a couple of weeks, when Davis plans to bring it up at a regularly scheduled school board meeting.
“No student was required to dress in period attire and any student that did so was not instructed, nor required, to dress in any specific attire,” school system spokesman John Stafford said in a brief statement. Cobb County school officials haven’t said whether the annual Civil War Day will continue next year at Big Shanty Intermediate School.
However, the note sent home to parents before the event said “it creates a more realistic simulation when dressing in Civil War clothing.”
Its suggestions included overalls which Davis believes could have been meant to represent the clothing worn by slaves and dark pants and white button-down shirts. White button-down shirts have become synonymous with demonstrators protesting the removal of Confederate statues in recent months. They were worn, for example, by some of the white nationalists who staged a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to violent clashes in August.
Communities around the country have removed Confederate monuments under pressure from those who say they honour a regime that enslaved African-Americans. The debate over such symbols intensified after a self-proclaimed white supremacist who had posed in a photo with the Confederate battle flag fatally shot nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. And it has shown little signs of waning since the Charlottesville clashes that left one woman dead.
“BE CREATIVE and use your resources to ensure that your costume is as accurate as possible,” the Georgia school’s note informed parents. It included a small picture of a man in Civil War dress with what appears to be one of several flags used by the Confederate States of America.
“If they’re requiring that the costume be as accurate as possible ... some kid is going to come to school dressed as a plantation owner,” Davis said in her video. “My son is going to be looked upon as a slave at the school ... he goes to on a daily basis.”
The best way to help students learn about difficult historical events such as the Civil War is to create an environment in which they can talk about them and learn different perspectives, said Andy Mink, a former Virginia teacher and now vice-president of education programs at the National Humanities Center, a non-profit organization that works to strengthen teaching.
“I think the best reason to teach history is to teach empathy,” said Mink, who works with schools across the nation to help them develop effective teaching strategies.
“The question we have to ask is whether or not dressing in a particular outfit is really achieving a learning outcome of some kind.”
Davis said she doesn’t object to learning about the Civil War. “I’m simply saying the way in which you are going about teaching this standard is offensive,” she said.
Earlier this month, students in Georgia’s largest school system, Gwinnett County, were asked in a class studying the rise of Nazism to come up with ideas for mascots that might have been used as propaganda for the Nazi party. Gwinnett County schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said it wasn’t appropriate, and that the matter was being addressed with the teacher.
“We don’t want to do things in our classrooms that would intentionally provide traumatic experiences for young people,” said Sandra Schmidt, associate professor of social studies education at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Schmidt said educators have been aware of the possible pitfalls of student role-playing exercises since the late 1960s’ “Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes” experiment in which Iowa teacher Jane Elliott designated blue-eyed students as superior to their brown-eyed peers.
“She quickly realized how out of hand it got,” Schmidt said.
Davis said she won’t back down in her effort to stop the dress-up aspect of the school’s Civil War Day. She said she doesn’t want other students to go through what her son did.
“What they can do is say, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore,’” Davis said. “It is mind-boggling to me that no one will say that.”