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After ACLU of Michigan Objects, YMCA Agrees to End Slave Re-Enactment Program

DETROIT—Responding quickly to a letter from the ACLU of Michigan, the YMCA officiails overseeing the Storer Camps in Jackson, Mich., agreed to halt a troubling slave re-enactment program in which elementary-school children role-playing as slaves are inspected, auctioned off and, later, hunted down as runaways by adults on horseback.

After reaching out to the ACLU of Michigan to inform the group that the YMCA would be ending the program, Brad Toft, president/CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toledo, which runs the Storer Camps, told reporters yesterday that the group hopes "to create an environment kids can thrive in, and we would never do anything deliberately to hurt that. We don't want to offer anything that makes anyone feel uncomfortable."

Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project and author of the letter, congratulated the YMCA for deciding to end the program.

“While we presume the ‘Underground Railroad’ program was the product of good intentions," said Fancher, "it nevertheless was a disservice both to the memory of those who endured the horrors of slavery and to the child participants in the program who left the camp either traumatized or with the misperception that slavery was comparable to an overnight camp adventure. We presented the YMCA with an honest assessment of the problems connected with the Underground Railroad program and, to its credit, the organization demonstrated wisdom and maturity by deciding to discontinue the activity. We respect and continue to respect the integrity and good work of the YMCA.”

Concerns over the program were publicized yesterday when the ACLU of Michigan sent its letter urging the YMCA to end a controversial “Underground Railroad’ slave re-enactment program held at its Storer Camps.

“Not only does this trivialize the horrors of chattel slavery, but it subjects innocent children to a racially hostile environment wherein they are highly vulnerable to feeling degraded, humiliated and guilty,” said Fancher after sending the letter. “A parent who complained to us said her child was emotionally devastated by her treatment during these re-enactments. We all agree that our students should learn about slavery as a critical period of American history—but treating them like runaway slaves is neither an effective nor healthy way to do it.”

Read the ACLU of Michigan Letter to YMCA Calling for End to Slave Re-Enactment Program

The ACLU decided to write the letter to YMCA national headquarters after hearing details of what the role-play exercise involved. The letter, which was addressed to YMCA president and chief executive officer Kevin Washington, cited  expert education research that characterized slave re-enactments as “inappropriate” methods for teaching young children about slavery. The experts raised concerns that such role-play programs are harmful to children of all races, and they urged that lessons about slavery occur within a historical context that includes African history prior the U.S. slave trade.

Among the expert recommendations noted in the ACLU letter is a passage from “The Understanding Slavery Initiative,” a widely respected historical learning project: “Studying ancient civilizations such as Mali and Benin, and reminding children that Ancient Egypt was an African civilization, challenges the stereotypical image of Africa as an unsophisticated continent. It will also allow them when older to better appreciate the devastating effects the system of transatlantic slavery had on the continent, and how its legacy is felt today.”

In addition to requesting that the YMCA terminate the “Underground Railroad” program, the letter also asked the YMCA to consult with experts before developing any future programs designed to educate children about slavery.

We presented the YMCA with an honest assessment of the problems connected with the Underground Railroad program and, to its credit, the organization demonstrated wisdom and maturity by deciding to discontinue the activity.