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Some NJ Parents Outraged Over Fifth-Graders' Slave Auction Poster Assignment

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- More than 150 years after the Civil War ended, slavery is still an important lesson in schools.

But as CBS2's Tony Aiello reported, one South Orange, New Jersey school found a homework assignment touched a raw nerve with some parents.

It has been in the curriculum for at least a decade at the South Mountain Elementary School. Fifth graders studying the colonial area are given an option to create an advertisement – and one suggestion is a poster for a slave auction.

One poster the students produced listed the names of available slaves, who included 12-year-old Anne, "a fine housegirl,'' and 22-year-old Jordan, "a great cook." Another poster specified that only cash would be accepted.

Superintendent John Ramos said in a note to parents that the assignment is part of a larger three-part Colonial America project.

Students were told to select a colony to research and then were given a "menu" of tasks, which included creating "a colorful poster advertising an event that might occur during your time period and colony." The assignment listed several examples including a slave auction.

Several students did just that. But some parents who saw the posters while visiting the school were offended. Many reacted on Facebook.

'I am mortified," wrote parent Susan Hyon. "These images actually hurt my heart."

"This is absolutely appalling and demeaning," wrote parent Mon Jon. "We're a community built on diversity, not destructive ignorance and segregation."

"Educating young students on the harsh realities of slavery is of course not the issue here, but the medium for said education is grossly insensitive and negligent," another parent wrote on Facebook. "It is completely lost on me how this project could be an effective way to teach any student in any age group about American history."

Some local residents who spoke to CBS2 were not pleased either, though some said it depended on the context.

"I don't think the school should have allowed that at all," said Sandra Rivera of Orange.

"I'm not upset by it, because it's fact. The question really is, what's the context?" said Thurmon Cohen of Orange.

"I can see how out of context people would get angry about that," another man said. "I can see - it's a tough assignment."

Ramos said the school consulted with anti-bias education experts when concerns were raised about the assignment when it was first sent home to students.

"One of the anti-bias experts highlighted the fact that schools all over our country often skip over the more painful aspects of American History, and that we need to do a better job of acknowledging the uglier parts of our past, so that children learn the full story," Ramos said.

Ramos said the completed projects should have been accompanied by an explanation.

"We completely understand how disturbing these images are, and why parents were upset. This was exacerbated by the fact that the displays did not include an explanation of the assignment or its learning objectives," Ramos said.

It turns out that South Orange-Maplewood is far from the first community where a slavery-related homework assignment has stirred controversy.

Posters, math homework, slave auction skits, and slave songs have all raised anger and concern.

South Orange-Maplewood apologized for what it called "unintended offense." The school district took the posters down, and promised to discuss the topic at an upcoming town hall meeting.

"Some families are supportive of the example of a slave auction poster included in the assignment, because they see it as an important opportunity to examine this shameful and too-often ignored chapter of American history," Ramos said. "Others are disturbed that elementary students were being asked to put themselves in the virtual shoes of people who subjugated others."

Ramos apologized for any "unintended offense or hardship."

The controversy comes as the school district investigates two incidents of racist graffiti at the South Orange Middle School.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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