Parents outraged after 5th graders in South Carolina pick cotton, sing songs on field trip
In one video students sang, "I like it when you don't talk back."
Parents in Rock Hill, S.C., say they are outraged after seeing a video of their fifth-grade students picking cotton while singing as part of a school district field trip that aired on a local news channel.
In the video, which first aired on a local FOX affiliate, students can be seen picking cotton while singing: "I like it when you pick like that. I like it when you fill your sack. "I like it when you don't talk back. Make money for me."
Nearby, one adult beat out a drum-like rhythm and another yelled, "I can't hear y'all," as the children picked cotton.
"When I saw the video my jaw dropped," Erica Poplus, whose daughter attended the field trip in September, told ABC News. "I immediately was frustrated, offended and was like, 'Wow, this is what my baby was doing?'"
According to Poplus, her 11-year-old daughter and her classmates spent roughly five to 10 minutes picking cotton.
Poplus said her daughter told her the children saw the cotton picking as a "game" and adults participating in the trip created a competition between the fifth graders on who could fill up their sack with the most cotton. Poplus also said that her daughter mentioned that her class was instructed to haul wheelbarrows around the school grounds "like a donkey."
During slavery, African American men, women and children were forced to work in cotton fields in grueling conditions as overseers stood by, whips at the ready, yelling to keep up the pace. The slaves often sang to keep up the rhythm and their spirits while they worked and were required by day's end to fill up large sacks.
After slavery ended, and during the Jim Crow era of segregation -- which continued through the Great Depression and beyond -- many black and some poor white sharecroppers in the South worked those same cotton fields for little pay.
The Rock Hill School District, in a statement, said that the district sent fifth graders on a field trip to a historical schoolhouse called the Carroll School, which is used as a place to help educate visitors about the impact of the Great Depression on African Americans.
The Carroll School is surrounded by cotton fields and, in a school district sponsored documentary, former students who attended during the Great Depression era fondly recalled a time when everyone worked together and helped each other when times were tough "like one big family."
"As part of the fifth-grade curriculum, students study the Great Depression time period, and this field trip helps students make real-life connections to this era in American history," Mychal Frost, director of marketing and communications for the Rock Hill Schools said in a statement.
The Rock Hill School District also calls the field trip a "unique learning opportunity."
However, for many of the African American parents ABC News spoke with, that "unique learning opportunity" also felt painfully inappropriate.
York County Councilman William "Bump" Roddey, whose son went on the field trip last year, said the singing while picking cotton really upset him and other parents because it seemed to make a "game" out of an experience deeply rooted in the painful history of slavery and Jim Crow in the South.
"Had I known that the picking cotton would be in conjunction with singing these songs, my wife and I would have probably never entertained him going on this field trip," Roddey said.
"When you see the video, you hear the songs being sung, you see the kids picking cotton, you can't now separate your mindset that this is a slave reenactment," he added.
Parents said they were asked to sign a permission slip permitting their children to attend the field trip which did mention that students would be picking cotton. However, parents ABC News spoke with said the form made no mention of singing songs while picking cotton.
ABC News has not reviewed the permission slip.
Poplus said she feels like she was misled by the Rock Hill School district about the field trip.
"I feel like if they were going to sing slave songs and they didn't feel like the parents would be offended that it would have been mentioned in the field trip permission slip," Poplus said. "So that right there shows the manipulation that they portrayed."
State Rep. John King said he saw the video as well and immediately felt outraged at what he called a "sugar-coated version of history."
"What happened on this field trip is insensible and inaccurate," King said. "This field trip treated slavery as a mockery and I am embarrassed for the state of South Carolina."
The Rock Hill School district in a second statement on Friday said that the songs sung were not intended "to sound like, or in any way be a 'slave song' as it has been characterized."
Both Roddey and Poplus said they believe the trip was racially insensitive.
"Had there not been a video I think that this would have happened on the field trip next year, even next month," Roddey said.