A Massachusetts school district apologized on Thursday after a photo went viral that showed a white woman and children smiling in historical costumes in a classroom while holding a black student on a leash.
The picture sparked fury online as people thought it depicted a slavery scene, but organizers rushed to explain that was not the case, and it was instead part of a lesson on Pilgrims. Still, many were troubled by the image of a leashed, kneeling black student.
The photo taken at Mitchell Elementary School in Bridgewater last Friday was shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook after it was posted by an outraged political activist on Thursday morning.
“Demand that this teacher is fired,” wrote Monica Cannon Grant, the founder of the Violence in Boston community group, in the post (which was later made private). “#FightSupremacy #BlackLivesMatter #ViolenceInBoston.”
Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District officials began investigating the photo after receiving a complaint on Wednesday night.
Superintendent Derek J. Swenson said Thursday the picture was taken during a visit to the school by staff with Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where actors re-create the Pilgrim experience for visitors.
The garment the black third-grade girl was wearing is known as “leading strings,” Plimoth director of marketing and communications Rob Kluin told BuzzFeed News: “In 17th-century Europe this was a common clothing item, which was used to help keep toddlers safe while they were learning to walk.”
Vicki Oman, the Plimoth director of museum programs and school services, was the staffer who visited the class and posed for the photo.
She told BuzzFeed News she “completely understands” how people could misperceive it, but said the children volunteered to don the costumes and there was no racial element.
“It’s caused me a lot of grief to see that interpretation because that certainly was not at all what the intention was,” Oman said.
Oman, who has worked at Plimoth for 10 years and makes regular classroom visits, said children usually love trying the costumes.
When she asked for volunteers at Mitchell, she said she simply chose students who could fit into the clothes to dress as a Pilgrim boy, girl, and infant.
“The teacher took a picture,” Oman told BuzzFeed News. “We were in mid-motion, and she was kneeling down to be the ‘baby’ and laughing.”
“I didn’t take the image and I didn’t post it,” she said.
Kluin, the Plimoth marketing director, described the misunderstanding as “unfortunate.”
“We apologize for the misrepresentation and we never intended to treat any group with disrespect,” he said.
Superintendent Swenson also apologized for the “unfortunate incident” that he said resulted from the class teacher sharing the photo with parents without enough context.
“We realize without this context added to the photo that was shared by the classroom teacher it could be perceived differently,” he said. “Please note it was never the intent of the lesson to demean or degrade any one person or group.”
Cannon Grant, the woman whose post went viral, told BuzzFeed News via Facebook messenger that she was sent the photo by a friend of the black girl’s mother. (She said she opted to later make the post private due to racist comments and spam.)
Cannon Grant said she was not satisfied with the explanation by school and Plimoth officials.
“That explanation is unacceptable,” she said. “Given everything that is happening in this country involving race and how people of color are being treated due to that orange fella sitting in the White House. They should have been more aware and racially conscious.”