This story is not about the movie “12 Years a Slave.” This is about the YMCA, known for helping young people become responsible citizens facing questions about whether the organization put innocent fifth-graders through the traumatic experience of slavery by making them act as slaves at one of its camp programs.
At night during the camp, according to two African-American parents, their children were made to act as slaves on the auction block while some teachers and camp instructors acted as slave masters, chasing them on real horsebacks.
The activity, called “Underground Railroad,” is dubbed by the YMCA as an educational experience. But for parent Tiffany Birchett, the slavery re-enactment last year traumatized her 10-year-old daughter, Makayla Birchett. The mother’s complaint reached the doors of the ACLU of Michigan this year, which wasted no time in forcing the YMCA to immediately halt the activity.
Birchett recalled how in November 2015 she signed up her daughter, a student at Pardee Elementary School in Dearborn Heights, to attend the YMCA Storer Camps in Jackson. At the camp, children enjoy such activities as nature hikes, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding and sitting around campfires.
“My daughter came home after the camp. She was very disturbed, and she told me what happened. First, I was wondering if this was a ritual that they do to these kids every year they attend the camp,” Birchett said. “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 said she sent an email to the school principal, William J. Murphy, on Dec. 11 detailing her daughter’s “racially insensitive experience” at the camp and that the child had since been “displaying bouts of sadness.”
She said in her email that “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 also noted: “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.”
Murphy, the principal, responded by underscoring the value of the Underground Railroad experience, stating: “As of this response, not one student has expressed to us that they felt that way about the UGRR (Underground Railroad activity).”
He also said, “As part of being in character, students/staff are reminded not to look any of the UGRR characters in the eyes while interacting with them. At that time in history it was considered ‘disrespectful’ to do so.”
Murphy forwarded Birchett’s concerns to Nancy Burger, director of Outdoor Environmental Education for the YMCA Storer Camps, who responded to the principal denying Birchett’s claims.
“In the evaluations at the end of the week, 54 of the students said that it was their favorite evening program, which is impressive as it shows the students truly learned something from the experience,” Burger told Murphy. When contacted by this writer and asked to explain the metrics of the evaluation and the racial makeup of the students, she declined to speak on the matter.
During an interview with Birchett, another parent, Regina Crutchfield, came forward to say her daughter Brooklyn Jones, a fifth-grader at Jane Addams Elementary in Redford, had gone through a similar experience in November at the Y’s Storer Camp.
“My daughter said she was scared. 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,” Crutchfield said. “If they want to teach black history, they should do that in the classroom.”
Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU Racial Justice Project, wrote a letter on Feb. 4 to Kevin Washington, president and CEO of the YMCA USA, demanding a halt to the program. Washington is an African-American.
“Not only is the Underground Railroad activity emotionally and intellectually harmful,” Fancher wrote, “it also creates a racially hostile environment that has legal implications both for the camp in its role as an educational institution or agent of an educational institution, and for the schools that send their students to the camp facility.”
The same day the ACLU letter was dispatched, Brad Toft, the president of the YMCA of Greater Toledo, which operates the YMCA Storer Camps, called Fancher to tell him they were ending the Underground Railroad project.
Rob Thomas, communication director for the YMCA of Greater Toledo, said the program had been in effect for 20 years and is held several times during the year. About 40 school districts, private and public, have participated in the camps, he said.
While denying a request for an interview, Thomas said: “The program was discontinued when we were recently informed of a child who felt unsafe during the experience.”
Fancher praised the decision to end the program.
“We applaud the YMCA’s mature and responsible decision to terminate the Underground Railroad activity. The activity presented a risk of trauma for children who identify with their enslaved ancestors,” Fancher said. “We encourage further efforts to educate children about slavery but without re-enactments and in consultation with experts.”