By the time Ayana Alexander’s children turned 2, she introduced them to the history of slavery in the U.S.

“When we get older, we hear these racist comments, and kids do not know how to identify or they don’t know how to deal with that when it comes upon them,” she said.

Alexander said Thursday that she wanted her children to learn about slavery at an early age, so they could have an idea about why people think a certain way or say the things that they say. Talking about slavery is touchy, she said, but so was the era of slavery in general.

“There’s no erasing history,” said Alexander. “There’s nothing wrong with revisiting history.”

Alexander, who has two children at Cale Elementary School in Albemarle County, said the school should not have removed the poster that was created as a part of Black History Month.

The colorful poster that was in the school’s foyer read: “Dear Students, They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc. and made them slaves. Sincerely, your ancestors.”

Those people had lives prior to getting captured, so the poster’s message is correct, she said.

Matt Haas, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, conceded Monday that his decision to take down the poster was premature.

If he had to do it again, he would have asked Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, to go to the school and work with Principal Cyndi Wells to find out more details first, Haas said during a recording of the radio show In My Humble Opinion.

“I did not do that,” he said during the interview, which included Charlottesville Tomorrow and will air at noon Sunday on 101.3 FM. “… If I had to do it over again, I would have taken my foot off the gas.”

This was the second time that the poster had been displayed at the school, Haas said. It was based on one posted last year at a middle school in Mississippi to widespread attention, and the one at Cale was designed by staff members who organize events to celebrate Black History Month.

When last year’s poster went up, it provided context, Haas said. This year, without that context, the poster caused conflicts among students.

Students were having verbal altercations, he said, adding that some said,  “You stole my ancestors.” Wells brought the situation to his attention, Haas said, and they decided to take down the poster.

The poster’s removal resolved the problem at that point, Haas said, but after having more conversations about it, the division decided to revisit the decision. Staff is discussing ways to make the message more developmentally appropriate for all ages, he said.

“I want to say that I am sorry if this negatively reflected on the teachers and staff of the school,” Haas said.

Michael Garrett, whose mixed-race son attends Cale, said Thursday that he wants his child to learn about the history of slavery at an early age.

“You’re talking the removal of not a culture, but you removed pretty much an identity,” Garrett said. “People brought here weren’t always slaves. They had a trade. They had work. They had education. Children should know that aspect of slavery.”

Regardless of a child’s ethnicity, they need to know the full story, he said. Garrett said his son needs to know about the Black side of the family, so he began talking about slavery to him when he was in the first grade.

He said he didn’t know whether the school should put the poster back up but said there should be an explanation if they’re saying the poster wasn’t age appropriate.

“Somebody, I’m sure, can translate to the elementary school kids,” Garrett said.

Last week, before a formal statement was released, some parents said they received an email from the administration that said a poster was taken down because it was “disruptive to the learning environment.” Six parents who were interviewed last week said the email failed to address the content of the poster.

Haas said Monday that he didn’t have an answer for why there wasn’t more of an explanation about the poster in the parent email.

“It was not anything intentional,” he said. “… We were trying to make a brief message.”

Although some parents have called for the division to put the poster back up, others said it was not appropriate for younger children.

Lynette Carter said the school made the right decision to take down the poster.

“For these young kids, I don’t think this is something they need to know right now because they’re way too young,” said Carter, who has a son who attends Cale’s BrightStars preschool program.

She said she introduced the history of slavery to one of her sons by age 7, so he had a little bit more understanding of it.

“When they’re little, it’s just candy and snack and playtime,” she said. “That’s not something they really think of.”

But she added that she wants the division to treat the topic around slavery a lot better.

“If they chose to teach it, they should teach it without pushing too much of the slavery [topics] on the children,” she said.

Jessie Washington also said the poster was not age appropriate and was relieved when she learned the poster was removed.  Explaining the meaning of the poster to her third- and fourth-graders has been hard, she said.

Washington said she hasn’t started talking about the history of slavery to her children because they’re 8 and 10. She said elementary school is too early and that age 12 is a more appropriate age.

“I don’t think it should’ve never been up,” she said.

Charlottesville Tomorrow has forged a partnership with In My Humble Opinion, which airs at noon on Sundays on 101 Jamz. 

Man in gray jack looks at camera with slight smile

Billy Jean Louis

Billy Jean Louis joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its education reporter in April 2019 and is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jean Louis speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.