Stop Hurting and Misleading Students with Demeaning Slavery Lessons

Target Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education

Goal:  End classroom slave simulations that promote division and discrimination.

In classrooms around the United States, children are being forced into traumatizing “re-enactments.” Recent controversies have shone a spotlight on the difficulties of teaching children about sensitive historical subjects. Educators across the country have been reprimanded and even fired for their questionable slavery lessons. A more uniform and unified educational guidebook could help prevent incidents that harm rather than inform children.

One of the most troubling approaches emerging in contentious cases is the introduction of mock slave auctions into classrooms. In these hurtful exercises, teachers divide classes into ‘slaves’ and ‘slave purchasers.’ Students, some in elementary school, then bid to ‘purchase’ their classmates. As one might guess, African American students are often placed in the ‘slave’ roles and ‘bought’ by their white classmates. Studies have revealed the traumatizing effect of these activities on students of color. Instead of creating an environment of learning, such lessons more often create a toxic atmosphere of exclusion and shame.

Other simulations have also come under fire, such as lessons that turn the Underground Railroad into a game where students must race against the clock to escape. Critics believe that in addition to the detrimental effects on students’ psyches, such exercises minimize the horrors of slavery and paint a false narrative by transforming these atrocities into entertainment. Research into American students’ knowledge of slavery does demonstrate a rather stunning lack of understanding on the subject. In surveys, the large majority of students were unable to answer basic questions about the causes and the implications of slavery.

Sign this petition to urge U.S. education leaders to ensure American education teaches, not traumatizes, students.


Dear Secretary DeVos,

Pre-teens buying and selling each other; games that assign some sort of entertainment value to Americans fighting for their dignity and freedom: these examples represent some of the corrosive ways U.S. students are being introduced to one of the darkest periods in American history. National guidelines only offer recommendations about the teaching of slavery. With so much leeway given on a highly volatile subject that requires the utmost care, such troubling incidents will only increase. You can and should do better.

Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center have compiled a strong bedrock of research and expertise on this topic. They speak against the mock slave auctions and other exercises that destroy equality and self-esteem within classrooms. They warn about the woefully lacking foundation of knowledge current students possess about slavery, due largely to poorly though-out curriculum. They do not just identify the problem, however. They offer proactive solutions and easily implemented recommendations for teaching this and other complex subjects.

Please heed the guidance of these experts. Work for a concrete set of guidelines that can guide educators in utilizing the hard lessons of the past to inspire students in envisioning a better future.


[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson

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