KABOOM!* The YMCA Camp Slavery Re-Creation And I Can’t Believe I’m Typing This…

Another day of fun at the YMCA Camp!

Another day of fun at the YMCA Camp!

Maybe the reason I can’t believe it is that it’s difficult to believe anything when one’s brains decorate the walls.

The Detroit News  reports, in a story that I initially assumed was a hoax, that the YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson, Michigan included an  “educational” activity called “Underground Railroad”) in which black children were asked to play runaway slaves, as some teachers and camp instructors acted as slave masters, chasing them down using real horses. Once captured, the children were “auctioned off.” One of the young “slaves” complained to her mother, who wrote an e-mail to the elementary school that subjected its charges to this fun exercise, reading in part:

“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…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.”

“My daughter said she was scared,” another mother complained. “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. If they want to teach black history, they should do that in the classroom.”

Ya think?

The principal of the school that subjected its pre-teen students to the slavery simulations rather than the other better known YMCA camp activities like nature hikes, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding and sitting around campfires responded that he didn’t expect the uproar, since no student had ever complained…probably because they didn’t want to be whipped and hobbled, like Kunta Kinte in “Roots.”

This is Rationalization #43. Vin’s Punchline, or “We’ve never had a problem with it!” So as long as nobody complains about being chased through the woods by counselors acting as slave-hunters, there’s no reason to see anything wrong with it, is that the argument? Seriously?

It took the ACLU’s intervention to finally get the YMCA to end its Exciting Slavery Experience simulation. After the organization warned the YMCA of the legal implications of the program, the company, whose USA CEO is an African American, eliminated it.

I will now put on, once again, despite a recent playing, the Ethics Alarms broken record regarding our unprofessional and untrustworthy educators. If we cannot trust educators to immediately understand why a program like this—without parental approval, remember!— is irresponsible, abusive and reckless, then we can’t trust them to exercise sufficiently competent judgment to be entrusted with the care and education of our children.


* For first time Ethics Alarms visitors, this means a story made my head explode. (You can check out other Kabooms here. ) Usually such stories are headed (no pun intended—well, OK, a little bit) by graphics like this.


16 thoughts on “KABOOM!* The YMCA Camp Slavery Re-Creation And I Can’t Believe I’m Typing This…

  1. This has been going on for twenty years?

    The only reason I can think of that this maddeningly stupid charade would have gone on this long is that the counselor “slave owners” were themselves black [the article says the Y administrator refused to reveal the racial breakdown], in which case the children would not have complained no matter what, and if their parents knew — perhaps a parent or sibling had been through the same ugly experience! — they would keep it to themselves.

    This is a debased form of hazing, if you can debase such a thing. Children’s egos are not strong enough — and their imaginations are far too strong — to withstand the ill effects of being “pretend” enslaved by these amateur persecutors. The effect on a child going through this would be terror detached from any history lesson. (Chased by people on horses? Really? — being deliberately run down by a half-ton animal at night? That’s a lesson in how to have nightmares the rest of your life.)

    A comparable example would be a Jewish childrens’ camp where the counselors would play SS guards who starved and abused them, put them into forced labor, treated them like less-than-human beings, culminating in a grand finale of squeezing them into a concrete room and telling them the foul smelling air was a gas that was killing them.

    Fun, huh? Teaches you a lesson you’ll never forget. Teaches you that you are weak and inferior (yes, that comes through, just as it does for all victims of abuse. These are NOT professional child actors, trained to play a role of this kind, and with parental as well as professional support, including aftercare. Teaches you what fear and terror are like. In the end, it teaches you to hate — hate is the only reaction that youngsters know to people who hurt them — and if you cannot hate the people who put your through this, then you have to take it out somewhere you’re allowed to. Teaches you what your target is, even if it is the ancestors of people who never did anything to you, who died around 150 years ago — or complete strangers who resemble them. Teaches you it is OKAY TO HATE and to keep that hate going.

    I wonder how many of the grown up “old campers” still have nightmares about this summer camp …. or how many jumped at the chance to join BLM.

  2. As an Advanced Teacher Fellow of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum one our first rules is “no reenactments”. The USHMM sums it up best.

    “In studying complex human behavior, many teachers rely upon simulation exercises meant to help students ‘experience’ unfamiliar situations. Even when great care is taken to prepare a class for such an activity, simulating experiences from the Holocaust remains pedagogically unsound. [b]The activity may engage students, but they often forget the purpose of the lesson and, even worse, they are left with the impression that they now know what it was like to suffer or even to participate during the Holocaust. [/b]It is best to draw upon numerous primary sources, provide survivor testimony, and refrain from simulation games that lead to a trivialization of the subject matter.”

    The same goes for this poorly thought out activity. A quick Internet search would have revealed schools that have made the national news conducting such lessons. It’s not teaching and denigrates the suffering and courage of those who fled slavery.

    • Indeed true. I remember seeing that miniseries “The Holocaust” with Meryl Streep and James Woods when I was about 9 or so. Just watching that left an indelible mark on me that completely up-ended my worldview.

      This seems like the sort of child abuse that should result in legal action.

  3. “If we cannot trust educators to immediately understand why a program like this…is irresponsible, abusive and reckless, then we can’t trust them to exercise sufficiently competent judgment to be entrusted with the care and education of our children.”

    We’re rapidly moving towards an educational Catch-22: if you want to mold the lives of young people, you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near young people.

  4. I may but up against the newly christened rationalization “57”, so I will tread cautiously.

    Way back in the sixth grade, my class went on a week long field trip called “Nature’s Classroom”. I haven’t the foggiest idea of where the camp was, but it might have been in a YMCA camp, because one activity seems similar to that depicted here, although with material differences.

    The activity was a reenactment of the Underground Railroad. (This was going on 20 years ago, so the details I relate will be vague.)

    We were organized into several cabins, and each cabin with maybe 5 or 10 students, a counselor, and teacher/chaperone. One of the later nights of the week, we were “snuck” out of the cabin by the counselor, and we wondered around the camp, “spending the night” in various nooks and crannies.

    Camp staff ran around with flashlights, and the small groups would hide behind bushes, etc. At some point the “sheriff” (the social studies teacher), raided one of the hiding places, and “interrogated” the “host”. I cannot recall if we were “recaptured” at that point, but think not. I think the hostess talked her way out of the interrogation, and we eventually found our way to “Canada”.

    Overall I think everyone enjoyed it as a form of make-believe. The “sheriff” was a retired marine in real life, and there was definitely some nervousness when he nearly caught us. There were, however, no horses at this camps. My class was literally 98% white (130 students, maybe two were Black, and one Asian). There was no “slave auction” that I can remember (or if there were, it was the staff that was acting that part).

    My feeling is that the YCMA camp outside Detroit took a harmless activity to an illogical extreme. I remember nothing inappropriate about the activity in my experience. Even though I was only 11-12 at the time, and the exact sequence of events is hazy, I do not remember any true fear. Looking back, filtering through my own experiences as a counselor at a wholly unrelated camp, I will concede it may have been risky.

    A small middle school like mine, with students who all grew up with each other, and a dedicated faculty held in check by vigilant parents, may have made this activity safe, enjoyable, and educational for us. For an inner city school, with children from broken families bussed in from all parts of the city, and over-stressed, under-qualified staff, there is perhaps room for this to get out of hand.

    My experience was no scarier than a haunted hay ride, where parents and volunteers jump out and scare the kids, or act out “spooky” scenes. I enjoyed it, along with the songs and other skits throughout that week. The Michigan camp seems to have pushed the envelope, possibly denying others a rewarding experience in the program. At the same time, I would not necessarily think any camp I ran had the resources or discipline to pull off a similar safe and fun reenactment of one of the most traumatic aspects of the struggle for freedom in American History.

    • Material distinctions 1) while the game had a provocative title, the role playing didn’t involve slaves and slave-catchers. 2) It’s obviously a variation on a capture the flag war game, and thus fun. 3) No horses. 4) No auction. 5. No racial component.

      I loved playing games like that.

    • A vital point I missed (drawing a conclusion from two informative posts, thank you): Dragocuchina suggested we “…refrain from simulation games that lead to a trivialization of the subject matter such as Rich in CT’s “safe and fun reenactment of one of the most traumatic aspects of the struggle for freedom in American History”. The “haunted” hayride and other impedimenta of Hallowe’en, carnival fun-houses and for that matter, horror movies, is giggle trivia to begin with.

      I come from a generation of children that still gloried in taking sides in games of “cowboys and Indians,” growing up ignorant of who and what Native Americans were all about, trivializing and denigrating their lives. Gosh, it was fun! . . . History books and classroom exercises that are prepared for children then, and still today to varying extents, only add dramatic detail and inferred guilt. The perspective — the closest we can come to truth — is still askew.

      There is also an implicit warning to me in that lesson, however, not to fall into the trap of PC-ness and think that pretending anything is “bad” per se, including playing with toy weapons or conceiving variations on the Kama Sutra. The framers of our Constitution missed out on not guaranteeing us freedom of imagination, not just for children, but for grown ups as well, especially those who think controlling thoughts (as if that were possible!) is the same as controlling behavior.

  5. Did somebody tell these people the best way to mitigate historical trauma is to force children into reliving what caused it? This is so much different than voluntarily and purposefully confronting one’s fears. It’s painful to believe that an elementary school and the YMCA gave ammunition to those claiming there is a war against black Americans. The only redeeming potential for such an exercise is that they might have built some empathy and understanding had they assigned the white children to play the escaping slaves. I suppose that opportunity is forever lost.

      • Hi wyogranny. I am not sure to what you’re referring, so I’ll take a few stabs in the dark. Do I believe there is such a thing as historical trauma? Yes. There is overwhelming scientific evidence to support the fact. It’s also contained in the concept of karma and God’s admonition to the Hebrews that their sins will affect their descendants to the third and fourth generations (Exodus 20:5). However, what we see more of now days is primarily self-perpetuated, and anybody blaming their current behavior on trauma suffered a century or more ago is disingenuous at best.

        Do I believe the exercise gives ammunition to those claiming there is a war against black Americans? Yes. Social justice warriors will grab hold of any sliver of anything that can be remotely construed as evidence supporting their arguments. (What else do they have?)

        Do I believe the only redeeming potential of such an exercise would be the building of empathy? Other than perhaps the actual physical exercise of the muscles and cardiovascular system, I cannot think of any positive thing other than empathy that could possibly come out of this.

  6. Wyogranny wasn’t missing any sarcasm; it wasn’t there. They might have built some empathy and understanding had they assigned the white children to play the escaping slaves. Yeah. That would have done it! I suppose that opportunity is forever lost. Nope. You can see how it works so well today with pledges to fraternities and sororities. Or you could try boot camp for building empathy and understanding.

  7. It was not just the black children. What do you think the other kids did? They all took the roles of slaves. I did this when I was in sixth grade. It was neither traumatizing or fun. It was a healthy balance in between the two. It’s a shame that this is no longer a part of outdoor education, and don’t think any one the staff members (white, black, liberal, conservative, whatever), including myself, likes this being taken out of the program.

  8. I am going to camp storer for 6th grade camp and I just wanted to do a little research before I came in case it was haunted or something this is an interesting article thanks and I need to know if they still do this because this is life threatening to the kids and I just don’t accept plus I feel that because slavery us ended we shall not keep using African Americans against their will especially If they are kids I don’t know if I am willing to give camp storer my money or not after hearing what they do to African Americans that attend their camp that is plain right stupid and awful I am not going to let camp storer get the best of the kids to attend there !!!!!!!! I feel that they should feel wanted and like they are well cared for and not like they are getting abused but I would of told my mom if they did that to me also because I would feel bad and embarrasses because the white kids probably got to sit there and watch and make fun of the kids who had to be slaves. If anyone agrees comment down below

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