YMCA camps in Jackson, Michigan featured an activity for elementary school students called “Underground Railroad.” The intended purpose of the activity was to educate children about slavery, and to that end the students were directed to engage in role-play. But according to reports, students stood on an auction block to be sold, adult actors shouted at the children and insulted them as part of the simulation, and “escaping” children were even chased through the woods by adults on horseback. One 10-year-old African American participant was traumatized by the experience, and she and her mother complained to the ACLU of Michigan about the activity.
In February 2016 we wrote a letter to the YMCA’s national president that not only requested an end to the activity and others like it across the country, but also cited opinions of scholars and professionals about how the subject of slavery should be presented to young children. The letter explained the importance of teaching children about slavery, and it explained as well that it is equally important to avoid the trivialization of the experience of the enslaved by making it a camp activity. The YMCA immediately responded to our letter by permanently terminating the activity.
(ACLU Attorney Mark Fancher.)