Perhaps no symbol, beyond the Confederate flag, is as steeped in the dueling historical narratives of South Carolina and its people as its most beautiful crop: cotton.
The iconic white fluffs made many white South Carolinians wealthy. But thirst for those riches also fueled demand for enslaved African labor at first, black sharecroppers later, so that depictions of cotton fields today tap a collective memory of mass cruelty and injustice.
That cruel history flared into the thoughts of a Rock Hill mother named Jessica Blanchard as she watched a video sent to her by a teacher last month. It showed her fifth-grade son’s class on a field trip to a historic Rosenwald school nearby.
Blanchard watched an African-American man standing in a cotton field facing a line of students holding burlap sacks. He beat a drum and led them in song:
I like it when you fill your sack. I like it when you don’t talk back. Make money for me.
The kids were laughing, the sky bright blue, the mood elementary school silly.
Nothing at all like the horrors of slavery.
Outraged, Blanchard shared the video with a Charlotte TV station a week ago and watched the latest racially charged controversy explode.
The thing is, fifth-graders in York County School District 3 have gone on the same field trip, nearly every one of them, for almost 15 years.
So what changed?
A new empowerment
Many online commenters called what they saw in that video humiliating and offensive. Others questioned the field trip's tone and purpose.
State Rep. John King, a Rock Hill Democrat and former chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus, issued a statement: “The true history of slavery and sharecropping is one of violence and oppression. It is a history that needs to be taught with appropriate weight. Something has gone terribly wrong when slavery is treated as a ‘game,’ when children leave a field trip with the impression that a mockery can be made of their ancestors’ oppression.”
Rock Hill parents outraged by the field trip video took it to William "Bump" Roddey, York County Council's only black member.
“Race is always at the forefront of a lot of issues, a lot of emotion,” Roddey said. “It’s being brought to the forefront more now, and I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.”
The NAACP demanded an apology from the school district, which Blanchard received.
Nonetheless, the controversy spilled across a nation already embroiled in a piecemeal examination of episode after episode of racially charged actions and images. From neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville, Va., to Dylann Roof waving a Confederate flag in the Columbia area, to politicians from all over appearing in blackface, the march of episodes continues.
Around the time Blanchard watched the video of her son's class picking cotton, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s wife handed out cotton to high school students, including black students, and asked them to envision the horrors of enslaved people picking it. The suggestion didn’t go over well. Given her husband had just faced huge backlash after discovery of a 1984 yearbook photograph of him posing in blackface beside a KKK robe-and-hood-clad friend, the episode took on added insult to many.
These controversies are sweeping the nation due to two key changes: Modern technology, particularly cell phone video, is producing evidence of wrongs that many African-Americans have complained occurred with white impunity for generations. And social media is providing new platforms for ensuing outrage to spread like digital wildfire.
As it did when a white North Charleston police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, a black motorist.
As it did when a school resource officer yanked a student out of her desk and threw her on the floor at Spring Valley High School near Columbia.
And as it did in Rock Hill when station Fox46 aired Blanchard's field trip video.
A South Carolina mom says she's furious after fifth graders were told to pick cotton, sing slave song as a "game" to learn about the Great Depression. https://t.co/3TsXj1VSTD pic.twitter.com/XSzTRT1I2O— FOX 46 Charlotte (@FOX46News) February 21, 2019
"We are watching it in real time," said Shaundra Young Scott, executive director of the South Carolina ACLU. "The African-American community is now finding their voice and reacting to things that in the past they had to sit back and accept. We no longer have to sit back and accept it."
Roy Jones teaches at Clemson University’s education college and is director of its Center for Recruitment and Retention of Diverse Educators. Clemson, like many Southern institutions, is grappling with Confederate names and monuments to historical figures who represent the worst of South Carolina's racist history, including honors to former-Gov. Benjamin Tillman, white supremacist and lynching proponent.
Among other efforts, Clemson recently installed 9-foot bronze markers at 11 historic buildings to tell a more complete version of its history.
"Community groups and leaders of institutions are righting the wrongs of the past. That is in the atmosphere," Jones said.
A child of the 1960s, he never imagined seeing African-Americans so empowered to air grievances. Even into the 1980s, many black residents in the Deep South wouldn't have taken wrongs to the police or the press and expected a sympathetic response, he said.
"It's been there, under cloak, for a long time," Jones said. "Now multiple sparks have allowed it to surface."
That is especially true in schools, where black parents have often felt marginalized, their children singled out disproportionately for discipline from white educators. Now, more are speaking out.
"It's a growing thing," said Jennie Rakestraw, education college dean at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. "Parents feel a lot more empowered to speak out. The public does, too."
'Make money for me'
Erica Poplus’ daughter went on the Carroll School field trip in September. When the child came home upset, Poplus wondered if she’d gotten in trouble.
“They had us pick cotton, and we had to sing slave songs about picking cotton,” Poplus recalled the fifth-grader saying.
The child’s grandmother, Jacqueline Cain, also described the child coming home in tears that day describing how students had to act like donkeys pulling wheelbarrows and how the loser of a cotton-picking contest had to carry a bag called Big Mamma.
“When she was crying, she was angry. She said she’d been humiliated,” Cain recalled.
They come from a biracial family, and when Thanksgiving arrived a few weeks later, the girl eyed her white cousins warily at first. She didn’t want to play with them.
“She was having a conflict about seeing her family,” Cain said.
So they sat down to discuss slavery, stereotypes and loving people of all races. Soon, the cousins were playing like usual.
When they saw the field trip video, it all made sense.
They reached out to councilman Roddey, whose son also went on the field trip last year. The child had come home and said it was a fun trip. He didn't grasp the larger context, Roddey said.
But, watching the video, Roddey did.
He saw black children picking cotton singing: “I like it when you fill your sack. I like it when you don’t talk back …”
He saw those children laughing.
“Make money for me.”
“It was a real shock because the permission slip didn’t, and probably couldn’t, provide those details,” Roddey said. “I know the history behind slavery, behind cotton picking, and those were not happy times for African Americans."
He pictured enslaved people and sharecroppers who were brutalized while picking cotton, then took that message to school officials. They pledged to address the field trip.
“They haven’t come out with a resolution yet, but they have talked about it and been very responsive,” Roddey said. “The district didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”
In fact, the district has admirably preserved the Carroll House, he added, and other aspects of the field trip have value. But not everyone views this part of it through the same lens of history and experience.
“Some people are definitely shocked and amazed by what they saw,” he said. “Some parents and citizens aren’t. Everyone doesn’t look through the same looking glass.”
Tamikya Staley’s daughter also went on the field trip.
“She loved it.”
Her daughter, now in eighth grade, learned about picking cotton during the Great Depression. Staley, who grew up in a small Aiken County town, saw cotton growing all around the area. It was an important part of people’s livelihoods, then and now.
That's what the field trip conveyed to her daughter.
“It wasn’t made to seem racist or anything,” Staley said. “It made her appreciate what she has now. It was a good experience.”
To her, this field trip was no different than students visiting the local Renaissance festival or participating in rituals at the Catawba Indian Cultural Center in town. They offer children a chance to learn history by visiting places significant to that history.
She noted that the Carroll School was opened by adults who went to the school and who knew about sharecroppers’ lives.
“It’s people who actually experienced it,” Staley said.
Instead, she sees people getting swept onto a bandwagon of outrage.
“It didn’t become a problem until someone took it to the news. In this day and time, everything is racial. They just blew it out of proportion,” Staley said. “Everything isn’t about racial divisions. It’s about learning history.”
A school district statement noted that the song in question was written by a black instructor who had first-hand experience with the time period.
"He did not intend it to sound like, or in any way be a 'slave song' as it has been characterized. The lyrics came from his experience as an African American farmer picking cotton and making money for his family in the Great Depression time period," the statement said.
A teaching moment
The Carroll School is one of the nation's historic Rosenwald schools, built to teach black children in a time when whites neglected, even opposed, their education.
In 2001, the Rock Hill district restored the three-classroom structure, now listed in the National Register, and began using it for the fifth-grade field trips, according to the state Department of Archives and History.
Those field trips don't address slavery. The school was in use from 1929 to 1954 — the era of Jim Crow and the Depression. So that's the time period it focuses on.
Trouble is, through the lens of 2019, the re-enactment of singing and hand-picking cotton with burlap sacks connotes slavery, Jones said.
"It's really important, if I'm the teacher, to build context," he said.
Two things must happen to ensure teachers are prepared to offer that context: Given three in four South Carolina educators are white, the teaching force must diversify. And white teachers must receive more training to deal with diverse students and understand cultural differences, educators agreed.
Rakeshaw is a proponent of "experiential learning" — basically getting students from behind their desks to engage in lessons — especially for history so that it doesn't feel dusty.
"But you have to use your judgement," she added.
Slavery, for instance, might be best taught in a more nuanced, thoughtful manner than re-enactments.
When Scott of the ACLU watched the field trip video, she saw what clearly looked like children re-enacting slavery "and not taking it seriously."
That's nothing new. History books and popular entertainment have long whitewashed slavery and black oppression with depictions of happy-go-lucky caricatures of enslaved people who were treated well rather than abused — or were too unintelligent to know the difference.
The children's laughter during the Rock Hill field trip plucked that particular chord of pain.
"I don't understand how any adult thinks that's OK," Scott said.
Worse, she added, the class went on the field trip in February, Black History Month. She wondered if school officials realized the timing.