In late March, two classes of Brighton fifth graders went to the Rochester Museum & Science Center to learn how to become activists against racism. Called “Take It Down! Organizing Against Racism Program,” the nearly day-long program uses a local example of racist art and other objects from the museum’s collection to educate students about how to identify racism and organize against it.
More than 1,000 children from area schools, grades three and up, have attended the program since it began in November 2021. Admission for school classes currently is free due to a $44,000 grant from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.
Parents of one Brighton student, whose class was scheduled to attend, told me about the program. Information the school sent home to parents said it would be an “antiracist educational program” hosted by “activists” who will help students “find their voices” and “take action.” That sounded interesting, and so on short notice I asked the RMSC for permission to observe on behalf of the Rochester Beacon.
Based on what I observed that day, and conversation with a top museum official afterward (see Q&A below), I can say that Take It Down! is an innovative program that tackles an important topic and makes creative use of objects in the RMSC’s collection. At the same time, parts of the program raise some questions as to whether they fulfill the museum’s stated mission to embody “accuracy in our educational programs.”
I’ve tried to present here a full account of the program as presented, including the major topics covered. I reviewed all quotes for accuracy and context with key presenters who are quoted.
Upon arrival at the RMSC, I joined about 50 fifth graders from Brighton’s French Road Elementary School in Bausch Auditorium on the first floor. Permission for me to observe that day’s program had come at the last minute, so I missed the first 15 minutes, which, according to a printed agenda, included welcoming remarks and an opening prayer by Minister Clifford Florence Sr. of the Central Church of Christ.
In progress was a documentary film produced by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. The film, narrated by museum founder and director David Pilgrim, uses items from the museum’s collection of Jim Crow-era artifacts—signs, toys, product packaging, postcards and so on—to show how pervasive derogatory imagery of Black people was in American popular culture through the mid-20th century. As they watched, the children were instructed to highlight on a one-page worksheet key words from Pilgrim’s narration.
After the film, Howard Eagle, an antiracist activist and retired Rochester City School District teacher, took the Bausch stage. He said he would read the narrative from the worksheet and instructed the children to yell out in “call and response” form the words from Pilgrim’s narration that they had underlined.
“Jim Crow was a synonym for—”
“Segregation!” yelled the Brighton students.
“All major institutions in our society bought into the idea that whites were—,” called Eagle.
“Superior!” shouted the children.
“Jim Crow could not have existed without—” continued Eagle.
“Violence!” shouted the children.
Eagle then told how the “Take It Down!” program grew out of a campaign by antiracist activists, beginning in 2015, to remove from the Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park one illustrated panel that showed a caricatured image of a Black child. The panel, he said, was an example of “pickaninny” art that depicted Black children in a dehumanizing way as “dirty, poor, and ill-kempt.”
“Have you ever seen a human being who looks like this?” Eagle asked. “These images were made to insult, misrepresent and dehumanize Black children.”
The panel, noted Eagle, was included in the Carousel when it was built in about 1905. He invited the children to calculate how long ago that was, and a few quick with math shouted the answer: 118 years.
To mount an effective campaign against racism, Eagle told the children, you need a plan, which must include specific goals, strategies and tactics. He told how his group, the Take It Down Planning Committee, campaigned for eight months to convince local officials to remove the panel. Then he led the children, in “call and response” form, in an example of one of the chants his group used in protests at the carousel at Ontario Beach Park.
“Round and round,” called Eagle.
“Take it down!” shouted the children.
“Round and round,” called Eagle.
“Take It down!” shouted the children.
“The racist panel must come down!” shouted Eagle.
Eagle singled out one official for criticism: then Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks.
As a photo of Brooks was shown on a screen over the stage, Eagle recounted a meeting called by Minister Franklin Florence Sr. that he and other coalition members had with Brooks and other community leaders. At the meeting, said Eagle, Brooks said she didn’t understand what all the excitement was about the issue.
“We explained to her what pickaninny art was and the role it had played in institutional and structural racism,” he told the children and later reiterated to me by phone, “and that’s why the panel had to come down.” He recalled that Brooks thanked him for the explanation and that he and other coalition members left the meeting thinking she had agreed the panel would come down. But Brooks later announced the panel would stay up with interpretive plaques.
The Democrat and Chronicle reported at the time that Brooks had proposed making the panel into a “teachable moment for those who view it” by having the Landmark Society prepare interpretive signs discussing the racial climate when the panel was originally painted.
At the RMSC, Eagle told the children: “Maggie Brooks’ actions were racist!”
“We were very upset and that’s why I say Brooks’ behavior was racist,” he told me by phone. “She knew better because we had explained it to her.”
Eagle said after Cheryl Dinolfo was elected county executive in 2016, the panel was removed. It was later acquired by the museum.
Some other racist images were then shown and discussed, such as ones that often appeared on postcards showing a Black child restrained near a river as alligators swim nearby.
“Why is there an alligator in these pictures?” Eagle asked the children. “Because there is evidence Black children were used as bait to catch alligators,” he said. Alligator meat and skins were valuable, explained Eagle, and using Black children as bait was a way for Southern white people to make money by catching alligators.
I tried to imagine how the fifth graders sitting near me were absorbing this horrific image and information.
Eagle finished by summing up his view of racism. “Racism is not natural,” he said. “It didn’t fall from the sky like rain or snow; it didn’t roll in from the sea. It was created by white men to give advantages to them and their families and to people like them.”
Eagle was followed by Kathryn Murano Santos, the RMSC’s senior director for collections and exhibits. Santos explained that taking possession of the carousel panel and creating an exhibit around it was part of “the Museum & Science Center’s own antiracist journey, so we can transform RMSC to become an antiracist educational organization.”
Images and observations
The school children were then split into two groups; I followed one group to the Dawn F. Lipson Technology Lab on the third floor for an activity called “Visual Thinking Strategies.” The aim of this exercise, Santos later explained to me, “is for participants to make their own observations about racist images and engage in a discussion about them to reinforce content learnings from earlier in the day.”
Eron Damercy, RMSC school and teachers programs coordinator, gave each child two enlarged, color reproductions of racist postcard images, each about the size of a placemat and laminated. Damercy instructed the children to reflect on them—”What’s going on this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?” and to write their reactions on the laminated pages.
Each child received the same two images: one was a 19th century postcard showing the same image as the one later used for the carousel panel; the other was a postcard with an “alligator bait” image like the one shown earlier.
Damercy said it was a postcard probably from around 1916. At the bottom was a printed caption: “Alligator Preparing for Lunch, Chagres River, Panama.” It looked to me like a hand-colored photograph, but I wondered how someone with a camera would have caught that live-action image.
“Who do you think created these images?” Damercy asked the children. “Why do you think they created them?”
In discussing with the children the alligator image, Damercy said: “The Black child is being used as bait for alligator. This is a practice that happened historically—in real life.” One of the children asked why people would do that. “White people,” Damercy said, “did this to Black children for profit because from alligator skins you could make clothing, boots, purses,” and other valuable items.
“We think of slavery,” Damercy continued, “which was a very dark and shameful thing that we did, as something that happened in the South, but racism is imbedded in the fabric of our society.” He told the children that if they see racism “happening in a restaurant, at a party, or if someone makes a racist joke,” they can respond and become “part of the change.”
“We can call out our neighbors,” said Damercy, “and invite them to get educated and into a better way of living, and you can become antiracist educators yourselves.”
As the students and I left the Technology Lab for the next part of the program, I asked Damercy about the “alligator bait” image. “Is it possibly a hand-colored photo collage of several different images?” I asked.
“Yes,” Damercy said, “there are three separate images there that were put together. It’s not a photograph of a real event.”
Why, I wondered, were the children not told the image wasn’t real?
A lesson on symbols
In a second-floor alcove, the RMSC displays the collection called “Objectively Racist.” Here, under plexiglass, is the original Dentzel Carousel panel that sparked the Take It Down! protests. On nearby walls are other objects with racist imagery: sheet music from Black minstrel shows, product packaging and advertisements with caricatured Blacks, among many others.
Santos explained to the children gathered there that she would be discussing “symbols and how they harm or empower us.”
Santos stood beside a large video screen on which she projected digital slides of various symbols and invited the children to say what each meant to them.
The first was a Peace Symbol. “Love,” “equality,” and “unity,” were some of the responses.
Then the McDonalds golden arches: “Cheap food,” “fast food,” came the replies.
Next was the American Flag. “Nation,” and “country,” children said. One student noted that the flag has 50 stars for 50 states. “Some people want one more star for the District of Columbia,” volunteered Santos.
Another student noted the flag has 13 stripes for each of the original colonies.
“Yes,” said Santos, “our country was founded as part of settler colonialism. We have one stripe for each colony. But what was here before?”
There was no answer.
“Native Americans!” she said. “So, our flag is not only a symbol of independence, but it also symbolizes systemic oppression of Indigenous people who had their own vibrant culture before the settlers came.
“The whole truth” of our nation’s founding, she added, “is challenging and uncomfortable.”
A boy raised his hand. “The screen,” he said, pointing to the digital slide screen beside Santos, “shows white supremacy because the white is on top, and the blue is the lower half.”
Santos looked at the screen. It had two background colors: a top horizontal panel of white and a lower horizontal panel of blue. The two colors provided contrast and readability for text and images displayed over them.
“Oh, my, goodness,” she said, “that is good use of your critical thinking. We’re going to have to see about changing our slide background. I’m so glad you’re all using you’re thinking this way.”
The next symbol Santos discussed was the rooster. Beginning with the Alabama State Democratic Party in 1904, she explained, the rooster was used as a symbol of white supremacy. That’s why on the original carousel panel, she said, the Black child is shown as being frightened by a rooster. She showed other examples of the rooster image through history.
Santos then told how the panther became a symbol of Black empowerment and strength. She named Stokely Carmichael (later called Kwame Ture) as “one of the great activists in American history.” Carmichael, she told the children, was an important activist and an effective organizer during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and in particular helped lay the foundations for Black political empowerment especially through his work with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. She showed an image of that group’s pamphlet with a black panther standing for freedom, courage, and determination in opposition to the Alabama Democratic Party’s rooster and its message of white supremacy.
Toward the end of the session, Santos told how the original carousel panel has now been replaced with a new panel, drawn by a local artist, depicting a black panther.
The program concluded downstairs in the Bausch Auditorium. From the stage, Eagle echoed Santos’ discussion about the panther as a symbol of Black strength and spoke of the history of the Black Panther movement. “Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers were real heroes,” he said, referring to a co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
On the screen over the stage, Eagle projected slides showing his group’s definitions of each of three types of racism.
“Individual Racism,” read the first slide, is “abuse, exploitation or discrimination against one individual by another solely based on race.”
Eagle said many groups, including some Black groups, deny that Black people themselves can be racist because racism can occur only among individuals with power. But his group believes that anybody in this society can be racist on an individual level. As an example, he asked the children to imagine a Black man who had been employed at a company for many years only to see white co-workers get promoted ahead of him. “In that situation,” Eagle said, “this man is so angry that he wants to punch his boss in the nose. But he knows he can’t do that because he’ll end up not only fired but probably in jail. So, as a displacement, when he goes outside the first white person he sees is going to get it. That white person might happen to be a little old lady, bent over and struggling, trying to get home with her groceries. He knocks her down in the street and breaks her bones, groceries go everywhere.
“And that would be a racist act,” Eagle said, “because he only did it because she was white and at that moment he was more powerful than her.”
The next slide defined Institutional Racism. It referenced use of policies, rules, and laws that govern and guide institutions in ways that abuse, exploit, and discriminate against entire races of people.
“This is how institutional racism plays out in a white supremacist-based society such as ours,” Eagle told the children. “There’s no legitimate, accurate argument against it because the historical record bears witness it is factual.”
As for Structural Racism, Eagle told the children it is “built into the fabric and foundation of society, and has always been a part of the social, economic, political, and dominant cultural systems of this nation, and is reflected in every institution that was developed under those systems, including the one that’s supposed to be concerned with morals and values and ethics, that is, the historical white church.”
The program ended with Minister Clifford Florence Sr. offering a “call to action” and final prayer. From the stage, he said that before praying he wanted to speak about “white pathology.”
“Every race on the Earth has been studied except the European people,” he told the children. He said he wouldn’t have time to say more about this because the program was running late but urged the Brighton students when they got home to look up “white pathology.”
“It will be interesting to see how you respond to that,” he said.
Florence then bowed his head. “Dear Father,” he began, and offered a prayer “in Jesus’ name.”
When I returned home from the RMSC, I found that the image that most stayed with me was not the Dentzel Carousel panel but the other image repeatedly emphasized: the one involving Black children used as bait to catch alligators. If the fifth graders remembered anything from the program, I thought, it might well be this image.
Googling the topic for more information, I was surprised to quickly discover that while the racist imagery of “alligator bait” was historically widespread in American culture as a way of dehumanizing Black people, leading scholars voice significant doubt as to the historical validity of the practice itself.
The fact-checking site Snopes.com, for example, which has millions of visitors and is referenced by news media including CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, in 2017 published a lengthy account of its own investigation. While researchers found dozens of newspaper stories from the 1800s and early 1900s that reference the practice, none included evidence they deemed credible to conclude that the practice actually happened, though certainly many other disturbing racist practices occurred. Instead, many of the stories quoted each other and included embellished details likely imagined by city editors unfamiliar with rural life. The “picaninnies-as-bait trope,” found Snopes, was fabricated by editors “with no qualms about exploiting racist stereotypes” to sell papers.
“Equally incredible,” Snopes found, “are articles … reporting that infants have been similarly used as ‘crocodile bait’ in countries other than the United States,” including those in Asia and Africa. These include accounts of British officers using “Hindoo babies” to catch crocodiles in India, and an 1891 account in the Toronto Daily Mail of Jewish babies kidnapped in Russia and sent to Egypt for use as bait with Nile crocodiles.
“(T)he common threads running through all these reports,” continued Snopes, “are racism, xenophobia, and the utter lack of specifics … yet, we have not encountered a single report that included enough detail to verify that even one such incident actually took place.”
The alligator bait trope, concluded Snopes, is likely an example of urban legend.
“We are unable to prove the negative, of course,” Snopes researchers wrote. “We cannot demonstrate that no infant anywhere, irrespective of color or creed, was ever used as reptile bait. But neither has anyone proved to date that infants were, in fact, used in such a manner.”
Snopes then cited the work of a leading scholar of African American history.
“We checked this conclusion with folklorist and African American studies professor Patricia Turner, who has probably done more research on the ‘alligator bait’ motif than anyone else in the world and asked her if she had ever come across information suggesting that the phenomenon might be real.
“I have not seen any evidence to suggest that it was true,” Turner told Snopes, adding that “it would have been all the more unlikely during the era of slavery, when a black child would have been a much more valuable commodity than an alligator.”
Turner is professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, director of UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Legacy Project, and author of five books including “Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture,” in which she devotes a chapter to the “alligator bait” question. Turner also was a consulting scholar with the Jim Crow Museum’s documentary film, “Ethnic Notions,” excerpts of which are played as part of the “Objectively Racist” exhibit at the RMSC.
Voices on the other side of the debate include Franklin Hughes, a videographer with the Jim Crow Museum. In a statement published in 2017—after the Snopes investigation—Hughes wrote of the alligator bait question: “Some people believed it was just a legend while others believed it to be true.” While noting “it was obviously not a very widespread practice,” he maintains that, based on 19th and early 20th century newspaper accounts, “there is compelling evidence to confirm that the practice occurred.” He added: “Given the thousands of horrific incidents and negative attitudes of many toward African Americans and people of color, I do not find this a stretch in anyway.”
The RMSC, in an email, pointed to this comment by Hughes as evidence that the alligator bait trope is real. The museum also cites an article in the Tampa Bay Times from 2020 in which Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida history professor, is quoted as having seen “first-hand accounts of white people claiming to use black infants as bait while hunting in the Everglades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” The same article, however, also quotes Ortiz as saying that “it’s not entirely clear whether those events actually happened or if they were just tall tales caused by hunters bragging about the large animals they bagged.”
I was curious if what Turner told Snopes in 2017—that she’d seen no credible evidence that the alligator bait stories were real—still reflects her beliefs today, so I wrote her directly.
“Yes,” she responded by email, “it is still the case that there’s no reliable evidence to substantiate this as a practice in the American South. In addition to what I noted (to Snopes), I would add that the kinds of documents that we would expect to reference it, e.g., newspapers (particularly the black press in the early 20th century that campaigned against lynching), diaries, letters, slave narrative collections, make no mention, at least that anyone has found to date.”
In response to a description of the RMSC “Take It Down!” program’s use of alligator bait images and reference to them as historically accurate, Turner replied: “While the (Rochester Museum & Science Center’s) mission to become an ‘antiracist educational organization,’ is laudable, it needs to be rooted in a solid understanding of the history of what is being presented.”
Whether stories about Black children being used as alligator were real or folklore, that countless images were made depicting the alleged practice was a genuine symbol of racism and clear proof of how African Americans were dehumanized. What’s less clear is why the RMSC doesn’t share with children the doubts expressed by credible scholars about the practice and instead presents the images as historical fact.
To explore this and other questions, I spoke later by phone with Santos.
A Rochester native, Santos earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and religious studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a master of philosophy in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge in England. She is now in her 20th year with the RMSC.
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Can you tell us who developed and put together the Take It Down! program?
SANTOS: It was all done through consensus-based collaboration between the Take It Down! Planning Committee, the Faith Community Alliance, and the RMSC. Those were the partners in developing all of the content for the program as you saw it. On the RMSC side, the three main staff who were involved in developing it were Eron Damercy, myself and the RMSC’s former director of education, who is no longer with the RMSC.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Was the program I observed in March the standard program?
SANTOS: Yes, it’s all pretty much the same. There are small ways that we differentiate the learning to make it grade-level appropriate—for example, images of lynching are not included until seventh grade—but the cadence of the day and the content is the same essentially for everyone. But conversation can vary from program to program because to foster an open and honest dialogue around tough issues we make space for students’ questions and comments and the conversation in any session will reflect those student concerns. Length of time can vary, too, from three to five hours, depending on a school’s availability.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You explain to the children that taking possession of the carousel panel and creating an exhibit around it was part of the museum’s own “antiracist journey” and effort to transform it into an “antiracist educational organization.” Can you say more about when and how that initiative began?
SANTOS: This partnership, dating back to 2016, was a springboard for the RMSC’s antiracist journey and it, along with other projects, has helped build our capacity to share authority with communities of origin and interest as well as to prioritize authentic voices through inclusive storytelling. The RMSC’s current strategic plan includes the priority to center diversity, equity, and inclusion in all our work. In 2020, the DEI committee was formed to hold the organization accountable for enacting these principles.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Can you talk about specific educational outcomes you hope to achieve through the program?
SANTOS: We want to ensure that students gain skills and knowledge and tools that inspire and empower them to take action and organize against racism in their own lives and in their communities with issues that resonate with them most closely.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Let’s talk about the alligator bait issue. I listened as the children were told, both in the auditorium and in the Technology Lab, that it’s an historical fact that white Southerners used Black children as alligator bait. Presenters even explained the profit motive for why this was done. And they showed several graphic images depicting this practice. But leading scholars express doubt as to whether Black children were ever actually used in this way and consider the trope more an urban legend or folktale and note similar stories are told in other countries too. Were you aware of that?
SANTOS: Yes, I have read leading scholars weighing in on both sides of that. We are always reevaluating and ensuring that our information is as accurate and effective as possible. But I don’t think anyone was suggesting that those are the actual images of it being done. I think the point is that images depicting that being done were pervasive on primary source materials, including postcards.
ROCHESTER BEACON: But knowing that there is doubt about the historical accuracy of the alligator bait trope, why not—while showing all the racist, dehumanizing images— just let children know that people who study this disagree about whether it really happened?
SANTOS: Yes, we should be letting people know that scholars disagree on whether that actually happened. And again, the main point we’re trying to convey is not about whether it actually happened or not, it’s about images of Black children being used as alligator bait are intended to terrorize and dehumanize Black people. This is a threat to Black people, and it also justifies real violence by perpetuating narratives that Black people are subhuman. That is the purpose of showing these kinds of images.
ROCHESTER BEACON: In the Tech Lab, an enlarged, laminated image of a postcard entitled “Alligator Preparing for Lunch” was handed out to each student and they were told to reflect on its meaning. After class, the instructor acknowledged to me that the image was actually a composite of three separate photos put together. It’s a doctored image and it’s not even from the United States; it’s from Panama.
SANTOS: I would be surprised if the image was presented as documenting an actual moment in time. The conversation is supposed to be based solely on what the respondents see in the images and share with the group. My understanding of how that activity usually goes is that at the end of the conversation (the instructor) shares some information about the historical context in which images like this were occurring. We felt as a group it was important in this context to be clear about history so that students don’t walk away with misconceptions.
ROCHESTER BEACON: In the first part of the program, Howard Eagle said former County Executive Maggie Brooks’ behavior was racist because she favored keeping the carousel panel in place but adding an interpretive plaque. Do you share that view or were you at all uncomfortable with his saying that from the stage of RMSC?
SANTOS: Howard is very, very careful to contextualize the idea of calling someone racist. If you said she was a racist or she was racist, there is a distinction because one points to racist behavior, and one points to an inherent part of your identity. What Howard is relating is a perspective of the Take It Down! Planning Committee and his own perspective. He’s talking about a particular act that a government official did in a particular time. And by the time this program was developed, Maggie Brooks was already out of office, so it was not a political statement by the time it was made. It’s a recounting of history from the lived experience of a person who was involved in that history.
ROCHESTER BEACON: During your lesson on symbols, a boy identified the background screen on your digital slide show—where the top half is white and the lower half is blue—as an example of white supremacy. I thought you might use the occasion to remind students that not everything is racist—as people say of Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”—but instead you praised him for “good thinking” and said you’d see about changing the slide background. Is there a danger that we teach children to see racism everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist?
SANTOS: Part of this work is constantly reevaluating all of the things we take for granted because institutional and structural racism is so pervasive. If somebody provides that feedback, I’m glad they’re thinking critically; that’s what we’re asking them to do. Maybe there is something subconsciously racist to even the color backdrop that we choose for things. There’s been lots of recent demonstrations that computer algorithms are also racist because machines don’t create them independent of people. Part of questioning everything is actually questioning everything.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You told the students that the American flag symbolizes not only independence but also “systemic oppression of Indigenous people.” True enough, but I can imagine the flag open to other symbolic meanings: to people trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe, “liberation”; to those living under totalitarian regimes today, “freedom”; and to migrants fleeing poverty, “opportunity.” Tell me more about choosing to single out “oppression.”
SANTOS: I agree the American flag can mean all of those things to different people in different contexts. It is a symbol of independence, freedom, and justice, and it’s also a symbol of oppression. We don’t want to present just a one-sided narrative of history but to introduce different narratives that are left out of textbooks and mainstream education, which tend to be mostly limited to a Euro-American perspective. Through this program we try to broaden the lenses through which we examine history to include perspectives that are under-told.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The program opens and closes with a denominational prayer. For parents of public-school students who may not be familiar with the practice at a school event, can you say why this is part of the program at the Science Center?
SANTOS: We explain at the beginning of the program that the Take It Down! Planning Committee and the Faith Community Alliance coalition begin and end their activities in prayer, and we invite them to do that. So, this is part of our respecting their cultural norms. No one is obligated to participate; it’s just something that happens because that’s what they do. It’s the same way we invite, for example, Haudenosaunee people to open collaborative events with the traditional Thanksgiving address, if they choose to do that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: At the end of the program, Minister Florence, speaking from the Bausch stage, told the children when they go home to look up the term “white pathology” and reflect on it. In a program for 10-year-olds, most of them white, what would you say was the educational aim of that instruction?
SANTOS: I don’t want to put words in the minister’s mouth, but I think what he is suggesting is that racism is a pervasive problem not just in our community but in the United States throughout the whole of its history, and that there are things that have not been examined that we as a community and as individuals may have a responsibility to look at in a different way through perspectives of people most negatively impacted by racism. Making meaningful change requires every last one of us to examine we might be contributing to the problem and what we might do to address it.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Thank you for your time and for your openness in responding to questions on some sensitive topics. Do you want to share some final thoughts on the most important outcomes you’ve seen from the program, aspects of it you’re most proud of, and plans for the program’s future?
SANTOS: Well, in terms of the outcomes I’m most proud of—and it’s not just me being proud but our whole collaborative partnership—are students who have identified racist imagery around Rochester beyond the carousel panel that they want to see come down and are taking steps to organize around that. That is a testament to the impact of the program. We’ve also had a lot of African American students and educators thank us for making this education available and for connecting youth to educators and role models who look like them and who are working to impact racism through activism and education. That’s something that has been meaningful and effective.
As far as the future, our current funding ends in January of 2024, so we’re still determining what the next steps will be.
The Greater Rochester Health Foundation sent me a statement saying it funded the program “to ensure that children in Rochester could gain an awareness and an understanding of the history of racism and pervasiveness throughout all aspects of community, including public ‘art.’”
I also invited the Brighton Central School District—the only suburban district that has sent an entire grade to attend Take It Down!—to comment on its students’ experience with the program. By the end of this school year, the entire fifth grade of Brighton’s French Road Elementary School will have attended the Take It Down! program. Remaining classes are scheduled to attend on May 11, May 25, and June 1.
In his reply, Superintendent of Schools Kevin McGowan wrote that the RMSC program aligns with Brighton’s fifth grade English language arts unit “A Call for Human Rights,” which “focuses on the overarching question of why human rights are important and should be a part of a continuous conversation.”
Added McGowan: “This (program) is offered at RMSC at different levels for students in grades 3-12. The content and discussions vary based on level of students visiting the exhibit. In Brighton’s fifth grade ELA unit, students read several texts and look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as they unpack different human rights violations over time. This exhibit offered a local connection to the actions in our community that look at violations of human rights.”
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].
Thank you Peter Lovenheim for the brilliant reporting. I appreciate the importance of teaching about racism and encouraging children to be anti-racist. However, there are so many historically accurate atrocities that could be taught, there’s no need to use images and stories that are folklore unless you’re teaching how fear is used to oppress.
Excellent and insightful article. It is sad and even a little frightening that the concept of diversity education can be twisted to further different agendas.
Another great piece done by Peter. I always enjoy reading his posts. They are always thought provoking and fair. After reading this, I also read my morning daily reflection quote that comes my way via email. I thought of this post and feel they go hand in hand.
“Throughout history, most problems have been caused by a single idea: the idea that some people are different. But the minute we start thinking we are different, or others are different, divisions emerge, and that’s when things begin to deteriorate.”
One must question what the RMSC “Take it Down! Organizing Against Racism Program” hopes to accomplish. For young children to “…to become activists against racism” we need to define some words. Do activists function within the political and legal system or do they harass and destroy?
Does the term “racism” that apply EQUALLY to Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, Africans and Caucasians? Should “Take it Down” also apply to religions?
Also, WHO GETS TO DEFINE RACISM AND WHEN AN ACT IS “RACIST”? One person or one group—even an aggrieved person or group—cannot have sole discretion and be the final arbiter over this definition. We cannot apply the definitions of racism to the standards that were once provided for obscenity. In 1964 Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward described his test for obscenity—”I know it when I see it.” Those remarks didn’t age well–we would never accept such a standard today for obscenity and we shouldn’t accept a similar one for racism.
Next. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF SUCH A PROGRAM?
Rev. Martin Luther’s King Jr. received widespread praise for these words: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal… that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He also said that “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline…The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
While it remains important to recognize OUR history and our divisions, it is far more critical to understand the need for one another. Once we are done “taking it down” what will we replace it with? It is far easier to divide us by instilling fear and self-loathing in the hearts of 5th graders than to construct a child’s natural tendency to care for and support one another.
Again I ask you—WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH HERE?
Hopefully, the children will learn about the dark history of the Democratic Party which supported slavery, thr Confederacy, the KKK, lynchings. Jim Crow, etc. Whereas, the Republican Party in the 1850’s came into being as the anti slavery party to combat the Democratic Party. For some reason the media and educators avoid the subject.
The only thing being avoided on that topic is a discussion of how political philosophies, and not political party labels, are what’s important given how parties evolve over time.
For about 40 years out of the 250 year history of slavery in America, many, but hardly all, of the small government, states’ rightist conservatives who protected and expanded slavery called themselves “Democrats”. Nor did all “Democrats” support slavery.
That past political party branding obviously has little relevancy in the 21st. Century to the 90% of black voters who support today’s liberal Democratic Party. Indeed, not lost on anyone paying attention is how over the past half century, those small government, states’ rightist conservatives have been calling themselves “Republicans”.
But if you insist on trying to create a non-existent relevancy and significance out of party labels, then you should also look at how many Whigs, the party of Abraham Lincoln for most of his adult life, and the party of many of those who formed the Republican Party, were also slaveholders.
“You’ve got to be taught to love and hate” is the lyric from South Pacific. My 8 year old doesn’t know black from brown or white among her friends but the RMSC’s program seems intent on porting older generation prejudices on to children. Kudos to Maggie Brooks for being level headed enough to weigh the significance of a 110 year old merry-go-round stamped illustration decoration.
Interesting to note how bigotry, racism and a supremacist ideology can be retrofitted to stigmatize previously innocuous symbols. The classic case being the hijacking by the Nazis of the almost-universal usage of the swastika in cultures spanning the globe from the American Southwest to East and Southeast Asia. Closer to home, the rooster was adopted as a symbol of the Democratic Party in the 1840s when the party, looking to counter the Whig’s use of the log cabin and the rolling ball in their campaigns for William Henry Harrison, adopted it as a means of showing that they had something to “crow” about. When, sixty years later, at the exact point in time when the infamous Charlotte carousel panel was being painted, Alabama bigots slapped a White Supremacy tag on the rooster, thereby transforming the inoffensive into the infamous.
Brilliant piece by Peter Lovenheim on the RMSC program regarding racism education. thanks for the in-depth look and outstanding reporting.
STRONG MUSEUM of PLAY can also be used to encourage students to improve in school, through play and games, Note STRONG expansion, coming, June 30, with VIDEO Games, etc.
Eight years ago, I sent a note to the D&C on STRONG MUSEUM and poverty:
Strong Museum could be center for study of poverty
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 2015
Has there been any discussion about having a permanent center for the study of poverty and its solutions? If we had such a center people could go there all the time to wrestle with the problem. Policy makers could go there. People in poverty could go there.
I was thinking that the Strong Museum of Play might be the most inspiring place for such a center. It is through the spirit of playful imagination that we find new directions and hope.
As Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus said, “To overcome poverty and the flaws of the economic crisis in our society, we need to envision our social life. We have to free our mind, imagine what has never happened before and write social fiction. We need to imagine things to make them happen. If you don’t imagine, it will never happen.”
Thank you, Peter Lovenheim for your inspiring story. Let’s keep it up.
Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org
Yay for critical thinking. Thank you for this thoughtful reporting. Kudos to RMSC for teaching awareness in a world that wants to ignore it. Please rethink that composite photo, or at least how it’s presented. When I was in 5th grade, for sure I’d walk away thinking that it actually happened and tell everyone I know, if the talk went as Lovenheim describes. If the audience were older, some members would ask the question the writer did, and a richer understanding of what this imagery meant would come out. It’s awful enough on its own merits. And it does the job. But with younger kids, let’s more clearly acknowledge that misleading the viewer is exactly what publishers meant to do in the first place – they did it all the time. Talk about a time in history to teach critical thinking skills, especially with the media. Misinformation can come from any corner.
While Ms. Santos correctly states that the negative, bordering on genocidal, impact of European colonization on Indigenous Peoples must be taught, and that the RM&SC doesn’t want, “to present just a one-sided narrative of history but to introduce different narratives that are left out of textbooks and mainstream education”, I find it interesting that that a one-sided narrative seems to be part of the RM&SC’s program.
While nothing can excuse the way Europeans and their descendants treated Indigenous Peoples, apparently left unspoken in the RM&SC’s program (or at least in this description of that program) is placing the actions of Europeans in context with the way in which those Peoples treated one another. Long before the first Europeans arrived these Peoples fought a perpetual series of bloody conflicts known as the Mourning Wars, changing tactics following post-European arrival when native nations later allied themselves with the French, Dutch and English in order to gain mastery, albeit a temporary one, over other native nations.
In our own area, starting within in the first quarter if the 17th. Century when the European population on this continent was numbered in a few thousands, the warriors of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, particularly their “shock troops, the Senecas, launched the Beaver Wars, a series of aggression s again the Huron-Wendat, the Algonquin, the Mohicans, the Neutrals, the Erie, the Nipissing, the Petun, the Sokoki, the Abenaki, and eventually the Illinois and the Miami. Within two or three decades, the Haudenosaunee warriors had destroyed and dispersed most of these native nations, in the process killing thousands, actions which modern scholars have labeled as “genocidal”.
By the early 18th. Century, the Haudenosaunee’s attacks and terror tactics had given them control of an area stretching from Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada, east to New England, south to the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, and west through the Ohio River valley to the Mississippi River and Lake Superior.
To leave these events from the narrative and make it seem as if the New World was a placid and peaceful region until the arrival of our European forefathers distorts the very historical record, the under-told perspective which Ms. Santos and others say they want to bring into focus.
First and foremost, this article and OUR PROGRAM is NOT about the “genocidal impact of European colonization on Indigenous Peoples.” Instead, it IS about white-supremacist-based racism and abuse of Black people, especially and particularly Black children, and it’s about combating vitriolic, white-supremacist-based, anti-Black racism.
Secondly, you claim that “nothing can excuse the way Europeans and their descendants treated Indigenous Peoples, but then you turned right around and attempted to do exactly that __ via your convoluted, distorted, conflated claim that in order to provide so-called “context” regarding the way lowdown, dirty, rotten, savage-like Europeans and their descendants treated Indigenous Peoples, it’s necessary to consider, think about, teach about “the way in which those Peoples treated one another.” WHAT???!!! How in the heck does that work??? You’re literally saying that because, in some cases they treated each other poorly, your lowdown, dirty, rotten, savage-like ancestors had a “right” to annihilate them __ Damn!!! If that’s not what you’re saying, then what (exactly) is the weird, so-called “context” that you are talking about???
Given that your critique bears no relationship to what I actually posted, I have to assume that it was meant to address someone else’s comments and ended up here by mistake. Possibly it was intended for a different site altogether given that none of the comments on this page could remotely be described as making any “convoluted, distorted, conflated claims” or implying a “right” to annihilate Indigenous Peoples.
Illuminating. (Another excellent piece, Peter.)
Thanks for your coverage of this program. To clarify, the mission of the RMSC is to inspire a better future for all through curiosity, exploration, and participation in science, culture, and the natural world. rmsc.org/about
Regarding the title of this article, the RMSC consists of the Museum & Science Center, the Strasenburgh Planetarium, and the Cumming Nature Center. In addition, the more than 1.2 million RMSC collection items tell the story of the Rochester Region’s past and present, including its rich history of social and technological innovation.
RMSC Director, Marketing & Communications
My goodness. Journalism! Making a donation to the Beacon today.
Another valuable insightful and thought provoking article by Mr. Lovenheim. It is hard to be optimistic when according to some studies 54% of U.S. adults read below the 6th grade level, demagogues increasingly are exploiting citizens’ fears and religious leaders by their deeds if not their words build barriers between people for example by the weekly preaching of the myth of Jewish deicide. Good intentions often have bad results or, as the late John Silber said, “sincerity is not enough.”
Fascinating & thought-provoking coverage of a program that shames us all by its very need to exist. Thank you for daring to probe & question.
Indeed I’m certain that our program “shames [MANY, probably including Mr. Lovenheim,] by its very need to exist.” That’s probably part of the reason why he worked so hard to seemingly discredit our efforts. However, as I noted during the process of our presentation, which, interestingly enough, Mr. Lovenheim did NOT report __ we do NOT want to engender guilt, anger, “shame,” nor any other negative emotion(s) via our efforts. On the contrary, we want to help people understand why, anytime we attempt to have deadly-serious, open, honest, informed dialogue regarding the historical and ongoing nature, manifestations, functioning, and essence of individual, institutional, and structural racism, which are thoroughly bound up together, completely intertwined, and totally inseparable from one another, i.e., there can be no continued institutional, and/or structural racism without continued individual racists — by the millions __ negative emotions such as those referenced above ALWAYS surface. Once we can help people understand why this happens in so, so, many cases, the next step becomes helping them get past those negative emotions in order to create or increase the likelihood that they will join us in the ongoing antiracist struggle _to continue impacting individual, institutional, and structural racism (in concrete, significant, measurable, permanent ways) __ in the way that we did via our eight-month, tenacious, successful struggle to have the racist, dehumanizing pickaninny “art” removed from the Public, Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park (Charlotte Beach) FOREVER. Don’t you wonder why MORE of Mr. Lovenheim’s “news” story did NOT focus on OUR COLLECTIVE, ANTI-RACIST STRUGGLE, as opposed to alligator bait, and the thoughts and ideas of ONE of our partners??? I do NOT wonder why. I know why!!!
I’m not sure I agree that shame is a negative emotion. I think of it more as a social guardrail. If more people felt shame for their bad behavior, maybe fewer of them would behave badly.
A good example of the importance of critical thinking on all sides of an issue. I hope the questions posed by Mr. Lovenheim result in some modifications to how this valuable RMSC program is presented.
I also hope RMSC will re-think the use of Christian prayer in the program. Just as with race, one denomination should not be “favored” over another. The comparison to Haudenosaunee prayer is a faulty, apples-to-oranges comparison.
I agree with Tommy Petronio’s comment. I need to give a lot more thought to this article. I appreciate Peter Lovenheim’s discussion and his details. I think a lot of things need to be discussed and learned from wrongdoings in the past, but presenting some things that may not be true sounds like the wrong way to go about teaching history. As a society, we also have to teach history of wrong doing yet dwell on how to change for the better going into the future. How about a detailed course for students at the museum on antisemitism that today is getting worse instead of better? There is a lot more racial division going on now than anytime in my Lifetime. I hear and read about graduation ceremonies this year based on race rather than educational achievement; in other words different ceremonies for different races. It’s hard for me to believe this because I thought we were going forward, but with this kind of information now, it is very foreign to my thinking and feels like as a society, we are moving backwards instead of forward. So I’m not totally clear that this program “take it down” is just about history and teaching anti racism but may be somewhat divisive or bias in someways. As I said however, I need to give this more thought.
You hope which specific “questions posed by Mr. Lovenheim result in some modifications to how this valuable RMSC program is presented???” By the way, this is NOT solely a “RMSC program.” On the Contrary, it is a Take It Down Planning Committee/Faith Community Alliance, in partnership with the RMSC valuable Program.
“RMSC [does NOT] use Christian prayer in the program.” Instead, the Take It Down Planning Committee/Faith Community Alliance ASK folks to join us in prayer, IF they so choose. If not, fine.
What (exactly and specifically) do you mean by: “Just as with race, one denomination should not be favored over another???” It’s the “Just as with race” part that has me baffled. Surely you’re not saying that __ within thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based societies (such as the granddaddy of them all __ this one) one “race [is] not favored over another” __ are you???
“The comparison to Haudenosaunee prayer is a faulty, apples-to-oranges comparison” __ REALLY __ HOW SO???
Yup, prayer should be out. Flags in classrooms out. Patriotism out. One bathroom for all. Don’t worry about a school system that cannot, will not tech the way kids learn. There are some people who know better. Actually know all. All you have to do is follow their lead. The RCSD/RCSB has been “leading” the way for decades now. Their accomplishment? Lowering the bar resulting in a K-12 education that graduates too few and drops out too many. Cheating kids out of a profession and or a career. Dooming them to failure. When are we going to wake up? And Tommy Petronio…..you’re worried or concerned about prayer. They don’t have a prayer.
Thanks for raising important questions about this educational program developed by RMSC, sponsored by the Greater Rochester Health Foundation and endorsed by the Brighton School District. While I appreciate the intent of these institutions, 5th graders are capable of and deserve a more balanced presentation. The use of the alligator image–when both fabricated and likely false–is simply inflammatory. The documented facts of racism are horrific and need not be amplified in this way.
The alligator images on postcards and other media are historically accurate. So I’m not sure why you or the author are insinuating that they shouldn’t be shown in the modern era when they were shown and shared in their time period. Racism is uncomfortable and not roses and fairytales. The images need to be shown.