KENNESAW, Ga. (AP) — A new battle line has formed in the national debate over Civil War flags and symbols — this time at a Georgia school not far from a mountaintop where Confederate soldiers fired their cannons at Union troops more than a century ago.
The school near Kennesaw Mountain last month invited fifth-graders to dress up as characters from the Civil War.
A white student, dressed as a plantation owner, said to a 10-year-old black classmate, “You are my slave,” said the black child’s parent, Corrie Davis.
“What I want them to understand is the pain it caused my son,” Davis said of her child, who did not dress up that day. “This is bringing them back to a time when people were murdered, when people died, when people owned people.”
Davis recorded an emotional video in which she explains how she was affected by what happened to her son. It has attracted about 70,000 views on Facebook. The distraught mother said she met with school officials, but was dismayed when they refused to promise that they would never conduct a class in that way again. The issue could come to a head in a couple of weeks, when Davis plans to bring it up at a regularly scheduled school board meeting.
“No student was required to dress in period attire and any student that did so was not instructed, nor required, to dress in any specific attire,” school system spokesman John Stafford said in a brief statement. Cobb County school officials haven’t said whether the annual Civil War Day will continue next year at Big Shanty Intermediate School.
However, the note sent home to parents before the event said “it creates a more realistic simulation when dressing in Civil War clothing.”
Its suggestions included overalls — which Davis believes could have been meant to represent the clothing worn by slaves — and dark pants and white button-down shirts. White button-down shirts have become synonymous with demonstrators protesting the removal of Confederate statues in recent months. They were worn, for example, by some of the white nationalists who staged a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to violent clashes in August.
Communities around the country have removed Confederate monuments under pressure from those who say they honor a regime that enslaved African-Americans. The debate over such symbols intensified after a self-proclaimed white supremacist who had posed in a photo with the Confederate battle flag fatally shot nine black parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. And it has shown little signs of waning since the Charlottesville clashes that left one woman dead.
“BE CREATIVE and use your resources to ensure that your costume is as accurate as possible,” the Georgia school’s note informed parents. It included a small picture of a man in Civil War dress with what appears to be one of several flags used by the Confederate States of America.
“If they’re requiring that the costume be as accurate as possible … some kid is going to come to school dressed as a plantation owner,” Davis said in her video. “My son is going to be looked upon as a slave at the school.”
The best way to help students learn about difficult historical events such as the Civil War is to create an environment in which they can talk about them and learn different perspectives, said Andy Mink, a former Virginia teacher and now vice president of education programs at the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen teaching.
“I think the best reason to teach history is to teach empathy,” said Mink, who works with schools nationwide on teaching strategies.
“The question we have to ask is whether or not dressing in a particular outfit is really achieving a learning outcome of some kind.”