The YMCA prides itself on being a community organization with a focus on teaching young people to grow into healthy, productive citizens. So imagine the shock of Tiffany Birchett when she learned that her 10-year-old daughter Makayla had been made to pretend to be a slave at one of its camp programs.
The YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson, Michigan are advertised with activities like “nature hikes, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding and sitting around campfires.” However, the activity (called “Underground Railroad”) involves the children being expected to “act as slaves on the auction block while some teachers and camp instructors acted as slave masters, chasing them on real horsebacks,” according to Detroit News.
“As part of being in character, students/staff are reminded not to look any of the UGRR characters in the eyes while interacting with them,” said school principal William J Murphy. “At that time in history it was considered ‘disrespectful’ to do so.”
The “Underground Railroad” program is supposed to be an educational experience, but the experience traumatized young Mackayla, her Mother noting that she was now prone to “bouts of sadness.” Her child’s behavior prompted her to write the school principal and demand an explanation.
“As the mother of an African American son and daughter, I am dismayed that Pardee Elementary would authorize and condone such an extremely racially insensitive and damaging activity,” she said in her email. She also noted that “The slave masters (camp instructors and teachers) had certificates which allowed them to pay for the slaves, and the students were required to hold up the certificates when they were bought or sold.”
The Principal claimed that no students had ever claimed, but Regina Crutchfield also quickly came forward to speak for her daughter Brooklyn Jones.
“My daughter said she was scared,” Crutchfield said. “One of the guys (camp instructors) re-enacted killing a deputy. They should not do that in front of a 10-year-old, and not when kids are hundreds of miles away from home,” Crutchfield said. “If they want to teach black history, they should do that in the classroom.”
Birches reached out to the ACLU, who swiftly reached out to the YMCA to warn them of the legal implications of this traumatizing program. Thankfully, the company – whose USA CEO is an African American – immediately put a stop to the program.
“We applaud the YMCA’s mature and responsible decision to terminate the Underground Railroad activity,” said an ACLU representative. The activity presented a risk of trauma for children who identify with their enslaved ancestors. We encourage further efforts to educate children about slavery but without re-enactments and in consultation with experts.”