Student-teacher in Tennessee dismissed over Black History Month assignment on slavery

The young educator was "teaching material that was not age appropriate," Nashville Public Schools said.

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By David K. Li

A Tennessee school district dismissed a student-teacher after the young educator taught a Black History Month lesson to fourth-graders, asking them to recite graphic, violent methods to control slaves, officials said Thursday.

The student-teacher's lesson plan, given to youngsters at Waverly Belmont Elementary School in Nashville, was centered around the notorious — and perhaps apocryphal — 1712 speech by slave owner William Lynch, "The Making of a Slave," officials said.

After reading the material in which Lynch purportedly advocated for physical and psychological torture of slaves, students were asked, "To keep their slaves subservient, plantation owners should" with a series of blank bullet points for youngsters to fill in.

"A student-teacher was dismissed and asked not to return to Waverly-Belmont as a result of teaching material that was not age appropriate or within the scope of sequence for the 4th grade class," according to a statement by Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"Metro Schools regrets if any students or parents were caused pain as a result of this incident. District leaders have been working with school administrators and parents to address concerns for the students involved.”

The class' full-time teacher was in the room as this lesson was delivered on Monday and "he has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Metro Schools investigation into this matter," according to a statement by district spokesman Sean Braisted,

Parent Kristen Lockert, who is black, said her fourth-grade son was troubled by the material and wondered out loud of his white classmates thought less of him.

"He felt that sense of looking differently at his friends," Lockert told NBC News. "For me, I said, `We're not going to look differently at people unless they treat you differently.' "

The student-teacher is an African American female student form nearby Vanderbilt University, according to Braisted and Lockert.

"They said they have tried to inspire their students to think outside the box," said Lockert, who works as a literacy coach for Nashville Public Schools. "They (Vanderbilt) actually approved this lesson."

A Vanderbilt spokesman said the university was cooperating with the school system and called the incident "an unfortunate situation."

“The student teacher experience, where seasoned classroom teachers serve as mentors, is an invaluable one," according to a Vanderbilt statement. "This was an unfortunate situation for all involved. We will continue to work with Metro Nashville Public Schools to ensure that students, student-teachers, and mentors benefit from engaging in the classroom and working together.”

Waverly Belmont Elementary School is about 47 percent white and 43 percent African America, according the system's most recent data from the 2018-19 academic year.

In addition to the criticism over asking 9-year-olds to recite brutal methods to control slaves, historians have long questioned whether the Lynch speech or letter are even real.

The Lynch address — which came to prominence in 1990s speeches by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — is riddled with language, references and scenarios either uncommon or simply not in use in the early 18th century.

Noted African American playwright and novelist Darryl Pinckney, in his 2019 collection of essays, "Busted in New York," said the purported Lynch writings are nothing more than “a parable about fear, envy, distrust” and control, “the means by which blacks are kept disunited."

Janell Ross contributed.