ROCK HILL, S.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) - After initially dismissing parent concerns, Rock Hill Schools is making "immediate" changes to a controversial field trip, first reported by FOX 46, where fifth graders picked cotton while singing what some parents described as 'slave songs.'
"I am so happy with the end results!," said Jessica Blanchard in a text message. "Rock Hill Schools took my concerns seriously and made the necessary changes to better the program!"
In a letter to parents, district officials announced, starting "immediately," students will no longer be told to pick cotton or sing songs.
Video taken by a teacher shows the students hurrying to pick cotton while singing, "I like it when you fill your sack, I like it when you don't talk back, Make money for me." That offended Blanchard. Her son says cotton picking was turned into a "fun" game where the "loser" had to hold a large sack of cotton nicknamed "Big Mama."
"The District regrets what was intended to be an educational opportunity," the letter read in part, "where Carroll School alumni could share some of their life experiences with elementary school students has caused other members of our community to feel offended or hurt."
It was supposed to be a lesson on the Great Depression. The field trip, mandated for Rock Hill fifth graders, took place at the historic Carroll School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, which was built by and for African Americans in 1929. The district says there was no mention of slavery or Black History Month. Blanchard's son says he left the trip not knowing the horrific history of African American slaves forced to pick cotton.
"I think it's making a mockery of slavery," said Blanchard, one of at least two parents who complained to the district and spoke exclusively to FOX 46 ."A mockery of of what our people went through."
When FOX 46 asked why slavery was not incorporated into the lesson, district spokesman Mychal Frost stopped our interview with Carroll School instructors, who attended the school in the 1940's, saying the question was "off-script."
Before the report aired, Frost dismissed Blanchard's concerns, saying she should have read the permission slip. The letter included "cotton picking" but made no mention of singing or the lyrics that students would be told to say. Frost said this wasn't newsworthy and tried to stop the story from airing.
Now, the district is making "immediate" changes to the 15-year-old field trip.
"The District is continuing to evaluate this matter and has sought, and will continue to seek, the input of our stakeholders, as we look for ways to honor the history of the Carroll School and its former students in ways that appropriately honor the legacy of this important part of our community and history," the district's letter read.
York County Councilman William "Bump" Roddey, the Rock Hill NAACP, and Rep. John King (D-Rock Hill) all demanded change after watching FOX 46's report. All plan to meet with district officials on Friday to discuss ways schools can teach black history without offending anyone.
District officials declined a request for an on camera interview and would not comment beyond what was written in the letter sent home to parents.
Support For the Field Trip
Online reaction to the field trip has been mixed. Oriana Gilmore, 20, who is African American, attended the same trip 10 years ago. Now a student at Winthrop University, she said the 'living history' lesson inspired her to minor in African American Studies.
"I think it was actually very helpful because when you're in the classroom you don't really get to learn what the lives were like" of students who grew up in the Great Depression, said Gilmore. "I think it's very interesting to be able to meet people who actually lived during the era of the Great Depression and during sharecropping, especially African American men, and learn how school was for them."
Gilmore said picking cotton didn't offend her. She hoped the district wouldn't make any changes.
"I think it will definitely take away from the program," said Gilmore, when told cotton picking would be eliminated. "I think it's really important to keep that history going in our community. I understand picking cotton is a sensitive topic but it wasn't done in a malicious way...Even though it's a dark part of history, it's still our history and we need to recognize that before we move forward."
Gilmore said she can "see both sides" of the debate and conceded the district could do a "better job" of connecting slavery to sharecropping in the future.
"The Best Decision"
Councilman Roddey said the district's decision to eliminate cotton picking, and songs with lyrics parents found offensive, was "the best decision."
"I applaud the district for hearing the parents' concerns," said Roddey. "It was the best decision for the district to discontinue the parts of the program that were seen as insensitive and offensive to many parents."
Roddey's son attended the field trip. Roddey says he didn't know about the singing and cotton picking until he watched FOX 46 - and was personally offended.
"Some people didn't find it offensive," he said. "But we can't be dismissive to those who it does offend."
"Thanks to you guys for breaking the story," he added.
State Rep. John King (D-Rock Hill) also applauded the district's decision as a move in the "right direction," but added more needs to be done.
"While I appreciate that they acknowledge that what was happening was wrong," King said in a phone interview, "I implore them to meet with the community, the leaders of the African American community....to sit down, to talk about what is acceptable and what isn't, and how black history should be taught where it's not offensive."
Like Blanchard, King felt making students pick cotton as part of a game made a "mockery" of slavery. He said it gave no "sensitivty to what our grandparents and great-grandparents....went through."
"They said they taught about the Great Depression? Yeah my folks were depressed to be out there picking cotton and beaten during that time, raped," said King. "But I think we can educate and teach people by teaching the truth without making a mockery of it" and offending.
King wants the district to meet with African American community members, including himself, and send detailed permission letters home to parents before future field trips.
"Getting My Voice Heard"
Blanchard's initial complaint, and interview with FOX 46, resulted in the changes to the program, which were announced Monday. In a text message, she thanked FOX 46 for helping her get results. She said she never wanted the Carroll School field trip to be canceled, she said just wanted it to not be offensive.
"I am so happy with the end results! Rock Hill Schools took my concerns seriously and made the necessary changes to better the program!," Blanchard said in a text message, thanking district officials for listening to her and other parents.
"We were able to keep the Carroll School and make changes to the curriculum so that the children are understanding what they are being taught!," she added. "Fox News I am forever grateful for your help in getting my voice heard!"
You can read the full statement from Rock Hill Schools below: