NY Teacher Encourages Students to Caption Photos of Enslaved People with "Something Funny"

A New York middle school teacher is under investigation after asking students to “write something funny” about pictures of slavery for a class assignment.

On September 20, Darlene McCurty wrote on Facebook that her granddaughter, an eighth grader at John W. Dodd Middle School in Freeport, New York, was instructed by her social studies teacher to write “funny” captions and titles for multiple black and white photos of enslaved people working in cotton fields.

The photos posted to Facebook by McCurty show the class assignment. On the assignment, it had titles like “#BlackGirlMagic” above a photo of Black women working in cotton fields with the caption “Black girls work hard play hard.” Another photo shows enslaved workers working in the cotton fields with the title “#Getting that money” with the caption “Cotton = Bread,” which is another phrase for money. McCurty wrote on Facebook her granddaughter “was and still is very upset” about the assignment. Her Facebook post garnered over 1,000 reactions and more than 1,700 views.

“My granddaughter who is in the eighth grade contacted me last night — She said her friend’s social studies teacher gave a class assignment to ‘write something funny’ about these pictures on slavery — and make it real funny because she didn’t want to be bored. My granddaughter’s friend refused to write anything ‘funny,’” McCurty wrote.

Dr. Kishore Kuncham, Freeport’s Superintendent of Schools, wrote in a statement on the district’s website that the assignment was part of a Reconstruction Era social studies lesson. The statement also let the community know that the incident is under investigation.

“The emotional and social wellness of our students is always our highest priority and we take any insensitive comments made by staff very seriously. I have directed that an investigation of these claims be immediately conducted,” Kuncham wrote. “Since this matter involves a District employee and is a personnel matter, there will be no further comment until a thorough investigation and careful consideration of the facts of this matter are completed.”

A similar incident occurred at another school in Long Island, New York in February after images circulated on social media of a collage that featured two nooses and a caption that read “back to school necklaces” was found at Roosevelt Middle School. The Roosevelt Union Free School District were made aware of the images on February 7, and the collage was reportedly hung in the classroom of social studies teacher and Teacher’s Association Vice President Nancy Jones. The images were circulated on social media by Pastor Arthur L. Mackey Jr. and three teachers reportedly involved in the incident were suspended.

“People are hurt. I’m hurt. The community is hurt and the board is certainly hurt by this event,” district Superintendent Marnie Hazelton previously said in a statement. “However, this is our teachable moment. Four hundred years to the year that slaves were brought to this continent, to stand here in 2019 still talking about imagery, nooses, things that were used to terrorize, to threaten, to harm and ultimately kill; we completely understand the seriousness of this matter.”

In March, two out of three teachers were fired after the Roosevelt Union Free School school board voted to terminate the two teachers in a 4-0 vote, NBC News previously reported. The third teacher, who is tenured, was suspended with pay.

In May, a New York state investigation found that children were negatively impacted by mock slave auctions held in several fifth-grade classrooms at The Chapel School in Bronxville, New York. The investigation found the racist experiment, which included white students bidding on their Black classmates, “had a profoundly negative effect” on the students. The white teacher involved in conducting the mock auction has since been fired.

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that the school will have to hire a chief diversity officer, increase financial aid for a more diverse student body, and establish a staff diversification plan.

“Every young person — regardless of race — deserves the chance to attend school free of harassment, bias, and discrimination,” James said in a previous statement following the investigation. “Lessons designed to separate children on the basis of race have no place in New York classrooms, or in classrooms throughout this country.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.