We are writing about concerns that have arisen regarding an assignment given in the Humanities course offered in Saltus’ Middle School department.
First, we want to apologize. The comment we provided in response to a query from The Royal Gazette didn’t address the issue that had been raised – an allegation that Saltus had asked students to write about the benefits of slavery.
The short answer is we didn’t ask students to do this, but we can see how the intention of the particular assignment could have been misunderstood.
Last term, our Year 8 students were studying slavery, racism and civil rights. This unit included pre-reading assignments about the Underground Railroad operated in the United States during the early to mid-19th century and excerpts of the personal accounts of enslavement by Bermudian Mary Prince and Sons of Africa member and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Students also analyzed posters that were used to communicate about auctions where enslaved people were bought and sold.
The purpose of the assignment now in question was to have students examine why those who were enslaved might have been reluctant to participate in the Underground Railroad. This included looking at what life was like on plantations.
While there was reference in source material to the provision of food and clothing and other aspects of daily plantation life, this was in the context of the extreme privation and horrific, ongoing physical abuse visited upon enslaved people.
The assignment asked students to draft a speech designed to convince enslaved people to join the Underground Railroad. The instructions were as follows:
Imagine you are a member of the ‘Underground Railroad’.
Use the text and sources to write a speech designed to attract other slaves to join you. Mention:
• The worst aspects of plantation life.
• Why the better parts of plantation life are still no substitute for freedom.
• How the ‘Railroad’ works.
There is clearly no context in which there are acceptable degrees of enslavement. But the language used in this assignment led to the belief in some homes that we were implying there were benefits to living on a plantation.
Regardless of our intention, we understand that intention is secondary to impact and perception is reality. In hindsight, we recognize the resource and the prompts for this assignment didn’t align with its purpose, but that is no excuse. We had to address the assignment’s impact and its reality.
We met with members of our community who were concerned about this assignment and explained its objective, the assignment, and the pre-readings. We revisited the assignment with our Year 8 students to make sure there was no mistaking the objective of the exercise.
We also established a plan to do a full analysis of the unit on slavery, racism, and civil rights with Dr. Vernée Butterfield, who has been working with us over the past 12 months in her capacity as an expert in Racial Equity and Culturally Responsive Practices.
The Humanities team and Dr. Butterfield are working together with our students to make sure the resources that are used and the assignments that taught are appropriate, allowing for open and honest discourse and a full understanding of the lasting and horrible legacy of enslavement.
We are painfully aware of Saltus’ legacy of white privilege and institutionalized racism, and the feeling that the school hasn’t shed its past. An issue such as this only serves to reinforce those beliefs about Saltus.
Our Board and our faculty and staff are steadfast in their commitment to establish an environment at Saltus that is genuinely welcoming, inclusive and fair. This is our responsibility as educators and we take it seriously – for the wellbeing of our students and the Bermuda community.
We also know perceptions don’t change overnight and that the memories some members of the
community have about Saltus are hurtful and enduring. We can only reinforce our commitment to do better. We urge our communities to hold us to this promise.
Saltus is Bermuda’s premier co-educational, independent day school educating students between the ages of 4 and 18. The school offers a rigorous academic programme that prepares students to succeed at universities around the world. Its focus on community, inclusivity, health and creativity gives students multiple opportunities to learn and grow as compassionate, independent thinkers with a global mindset and the confidence to pursue their dreams.
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