SAN FRANCISCO, CA-- Parents, teachers and even the Superintendent are outraged that students were asked to address the sexual appetites of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves.
Eighth-grade students in a greater San Francisco Bay Area school system were recently assigned a writing assignment that’s discussion points included a line describing U.S. Founding Father and third President Thomas Jefferson’s demeaning beliefs about slaves’ intelligence and sex drives.
The controversial passage that was present within the Tracy Unified School District assignment reads, “Jefferson suspected that Blacks had greater sexual appetites and lower intellectual faculties than did whites…” The writing charge asked students to answer “Why did the Constitution allow slavery to continue, if the Declaration of Independence claimed that all men are created equal?”
Dr. Carol Anderson-Woo, the TUSD Director of Curriculum, Accountability, and Continuous Improvement, said in a Tuesday morning email that the school system dispensed the “Tracy Unified GRADE 8 DISTRICT WRITING PROMPT Informational Writing 2016-17,” which contained the racist line in error to eighth graders. She wrote that “some students had already started and completed the writing prompt when the issue came to our attention.”
“Teachers have been told to not continue with the writing sample, though they are encouraged to continue to discuss the topic as part of their social studies content,” Anderson-Woo said. “The writing prompt will not be used with students from this point on.”
TUSD Superintendent Dr. Brian Stephens said he learned the passage detailing Jefferson’s thoughts about the nation’s earliest Blacks was in the writing prompt on March 17. He said he was shocked.
“I thought it was inappropriate for 8th grade students,” he wrote in a Monday morning email. “I would be at a loss to understand how an 8th grade student could understand or much less write to the prompt. As a former high school history teacher, I know that there are many more appropriate historical issues that could have been used to create the writing prompt. I was disappointed that this prompt is what we asked our students to write on.”
The line was contained in “Historian Interpretation #2,” one of three writings from scholars eighth graders could reference to answer the query.
Anderson-Woo said Jefferson’s thoughts about the country’s earliest Blacks were included in the prompt by accident. She wrote that “it was never our intention to raise some of the specific aspects of racism that were in the historical documents provided to students.”
Anderson-Woo said teachers putting the testing assignment together pulled the line by accident from the Stanford History Education Group’s website.
“The documents copied for the writing sample were not the correct documents,” she wrote. “In the lesson plan the historical documents have been modified to be appropriate for an 8th grade audience. However, because these documents are embedded in the lesson plan, they were not easily printed as separate documents. When the teachers sent me the documents to print for the writing sample, they used the other link provided on the webpage which was for the original documents, not realizing that these were, in fact, the original documents and not the modified version provided in the lesson plan. Since the teachers had already reviewed the documents online, none of us thought to check the documents they sent to me to be copied.”
In an email obtained by California Black Media, a member of the African American Educators for Tracy Unified School District spoke out against allowing Jefferson’s thoughts on slaves to be part of the writing prompt.
The educator wrote that the prompt is “offensive to all students” and inappropriate assignment for all the San Joaquin County-located district’s eighth graders.
“Our goal is to make sure that this prompt should not be given,” the teacher wrote.
However, the prompt was passed out to students.
Anderson-Woo maintained that the content provide in assignment was not the intended content.
“The intent here was to provide historical documents that students could use to address the prompt, which is focused on conflicts between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the beliefs and actions of the founding fathers,’” she said. “Those beliefs included racial prejudice, though the specific reference to sexual desires was certainly never intended to be part of the discussion.”
The unveiling of the writing assignment comes nearly a month after a math assignment given to second-graders at Windsor Hill Elementary School in Los Angeles had community members up in arms reported in the Los Angeles Sentinel.
The homework question read: “The master needed 192 slaves to work on a plantation in the cotton fields. The fields could fill 75 bags of cotton. Only 96 slaves were able to pick cotton for that day. The missus needed them in the Big House to prepare for the Annual Picnic. How many more slaves are needed in the cotton fields?”
Parents and community voiced their outrage to local and national media and one social media sites. They were even more incensed that the young students were given the math query during Black History Month. The Los Angeles Unified School District apologized for allowing the question to be posed.
The complete historian interpretation that contained the Jefferson line reads as: “The financial cost of abolition, heavy enough by itself, was made too staggering to bear by the Founding Fathers’ racism, an ideological hindrance to antislavery no less important than their sense of priorities and their commitment to property. Here again Jefferson typified the age. As Winthrop Jordan has shown, Jefferson suspected that Blacks had greater sexual appetites and lower intellectual faculties than did whites…These suspicions, together with Jefferson’s painfully accurate prophecy that free Blacks and free whites could not live harmoniously in America for centuries, made him and others tie American emancipation to African colonization.”
The interpretation came from William Freehling’s 1987 writing, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.”
The other two interpretations touched on the framers of the U.S. never actually considering abolishing slavery and being more driven to found a nation.
Anderson-Woo said next year TUSD will have a new writing prompt that will be on a different topic.