By Mel Reeves
The hanging of a Black doll by four Washburn High School students on January 11 created quite a furor at the school and in the Minneapolis Black community. A press conference was called last week and held at the MSR in Minneapolis by parents and community members, in which they expressed their hurt “that this kind of thing is still going on” and the desire to see that the perpetrators disciplined by the school.
In a statement read at the press conference, participants said that this is a “needed opportunity to discuss and examine our collective perceptions of safety.” The group also pointed out that it was important to use this as an opportunity to teach students and staff about what is okay to say and do racially and what is not.
Last Wednesday a community meeting was held at Washburn in which hundreds attended, primarily students. Parents and community members were concerned initially about the incident being swept under the rug and were alarmed about what appeared to be a delay in informing the students and parents about what occurred.
Students at the school have reported that not only did the students hang the doll from its neck from the third floor, but they also dragged the doll through parts of the school where other students mocked the doll and stepped on it. It was also reported that the students posted pictures of the doll on social media sites.
“This is a form of bullying,” said community activist K.G. Wilson. “It was clearly premeditated so all the kids could see it. It was like they [the perpetrators] were saying ‘We want everyone to know that we are racist. We’re here and we are going to mock you and your ancestors.’”
The school, citing privacy concerns, has not released the names of the students or the terms of their discipline. It is assumed that they were suspended for four days. There have been rumors that the students have returned to school. The school has not released information about whether they will have to apologize to anyone or participate in a restorative justice process.
Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson took the issue head on: “We absolutely need to say you don’t do this. This is not acceptable,” she said. Johnson said that the district organized the community meeting because she thought it was important that “people be brought together to hear about how they experienced the situation” and “to start the healing process” and “allow for different perspectives to be heard.”
Washburn principal Carol Markham-Cousins appeared to be resolute in her commitment to making sure her students understood the gravity of the incident, which she called “horrific” and why many in the Black community were up in arms.
“This is going to be transformative as long as my feet are on the ground in this building,” she said to reporters after the community meeting. She also said that she “wouldn’t shy away from the activists because they have a message to bring and it’s important.”
Indeed lots of opinions were expressed at the community meeting. Several students who spoke insisted that it was a prank that held no malicious or racist intent. A few Black students explained that they were pained by what happened and wanted an apology. There were others who felt that the community was holding them all responsible for what happened.
“We all know right from wrong. It’s not okay to pretend to hang a baby,” said Jazmine Simmons who is the secretary of the student government at Patrick Henry High. “Even if it wasn’t Black what were they trying to say, that [it’s] okay to hang a person?”
“A teachable moment,” is how one parent and staff member categorized the controversy. Al Flowers, a parent and community activist, assured the students that the community didn’t blame the entire student body, but rather insisted that this may have resulted from the lack of knowledge of Black history. He speculated that this may be so because “it’s the ugliest history in America.”
Another community member insisted that the intent wasn’t important, but that the event was indeed an affront to Black people who experienced lynching in the U.S. as part of a terror campaign raised by racist groups like the KKK and supported legally by the system of Jim Crow segregation, which occurred from the end of Reconstruction in 1876 to the 1960s.
The Tuskegee Institute estimated that around 3,500 lynchings of Blacks were recorded during this period. Many more killings of Blacks during the period went unreported. In other instances, Blacks were run out of town completely.
In the early 1900s race riots occurred all over the country in which Whites, stirred by some false rumor, set upon and murdered hundreds of Blacks.
There seemed to be consensus among parents, community and some students that they want Washburn and Minneapolis Public Schools to begin to implement programs and even curricula that would inform students about the history of Black people, including lynching and racial violence perpetrated against Blacks in the U.S., in the hope that these kinds of incidents would no longer take place and that the broader community would understand why they are grossly inappropriate.
Superintendent Johnson said that the school district would look into ways of exposing students to the day-to-day experiences of people of color in this country. She said that just learning about the major events like the Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech doesn’t provide enough understanding.
Parents and concerned community members planned to have a further discussion about the incident on Thursday, January 30, at 6 pm at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to mreeves@spokes man-recorder.com.