Mich. YMCA Cancels Kids’ Underground Railroad Activity After Parent Upset by ‘Racially Insensitive Experience’

As part of the activity at YMCA camps in Michigan, children of all races were supposed to role-play as slaves, standing on an auction block while being inspected and purchased by adults who played slave traders and owners.

Models of slaves are seen in the “American Enterprise” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum June 11, 2015, in Washington, D.C.
Models of slaves are seen in the “American Enterprise” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum June 11, 2015, in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

A Michigan YMCA has canceled its long-running Underground Railroad activity, deemed appropriate for students in fifth grade and up, after complaints from a black parent, who said that her child was “very disturbed” by the activity, the Washington Post reports

Students and teachers at the YMCA Storer Camps are meant to role-play as slaves in search of freedom, but one parent, Tiffany Birchett, told the Detroit News that her 10-year-old daughter was not very happy upon returning home from the camp in 2015. 

“First, I was wondering if this was a ritual that they do to these kids every year they attend the camp,” Birchett told the news site. “She told me the camp instructors, including some of their teachers, were dancing and happy before they went out to do this slave re-enactment.”

Birchett called the activity “racially insensitive” in an email to Pardee Elementary School Principal William J. Murph, describing her daughter’s experience. 

“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 email detailed. “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.”

Another parent later voiced similar concerns about the activity. 

“My daughter said she was scared. One of the guys [camp instructors] re-enacted killing a deputy,” Regina Crutchfield told the Detroit News. “They should not do that in front of a 10-year-old, and not when kids are hundreds of miles away from home. If they want to teach black history, they should do that in the classroom.”

The ACLU of Michigan also took up the issue, writing a letter to YMCA leadership this month, voicing concerns about the activity. The YMCA of Great Toledo, which operates the camp, discontinued the activity immediately, the Post notes. 

“We take this very seriously,” YMCA of Greater Toledo CEO Brad Toft told MLive. “Our intent is 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.”

“To its credit, the organization demonstrated wisdom and maturity by deciding to discontinue the activity,” Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, said in a release. “We respect and continue to respect the integrity and good work of the YMCA.

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