Chicago elementary school’s ‘African animals’ project for Black History Month outrages parents

The project was assigned by three kindergarten teachers, all of whom are white, at a top-rated neighborhood public school on the South Side.

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Sutherland Elementary School

Sutherland Elementary School

Valeisha Manning couldn’t believe the Facebook discussion among her fellow parents at Sutherland Elementary in Beverly: To honor Black History Month, teachers had assigned kids a project about African animals?

She called in her 5-year-old daughter, Raeghan, to check her backpack. 

“We are celebrating African American History Month in various ways at Sutherland this month,” a letter home said. “Since our students have a genuine interest in animals and love to learn about them, we are going to take a closer look at African animals.”

The project was assigned by three kindergarten teachers, all of whom are white, at the top-rated neighborhood public school.

Though the letter home included a picture of an animal that teachers said kids had picked on their own to color, many parents, particularly black parents, were skeptical; they said their children’s assignments came with pictures of a monkey.

The outrage and backlash started immediately, with dozens of parents complaining on social media that, at best, animals have nothing to do with black history. At worst, some said, the assignment had racist undertones.

“You’re supposed to be learning about someone’s history and how they provided some type of ongoing fight for equality,” said Manning, who is black. “Monkeys didn’t help us do that. Giraffes? Elephants? Zebras?

“It’s ignorant and racially insensitive,” she added. “I do not believe that whomever put this together sat back and said, ‘OK, let’s subliminally call these people monkeys or animals.’ I just think they were very careless.”

Principal Margaret Burns, who is white, addressed the issue with parents at a regularly scheduled Local School Council meeting Tuesday. She apologized for the “insensitive and inappropriate” project that “did not reflect the depth and honor” of the school’s usual curriculum. Burns, who said she hadn’t seen the assignment before it was sent home, said the assignment was canceled, and a new one was sent home Tuesday.

She said she met with her staff and is working with district officials on rectifying the situation. CPS didn’t immediately respond to questions about what that might entail.

valeisha manning

Valeisha Manning and her daughter Raeghan.


Parents, for the most part, don’t think there was any ill-intent behind the assignment, and they generally praise the principal for her response. But for many, the situation magnified simmering racial tensions in Beverly as a whole.

That’s not necessarily to say a black-versus-white dynamic has developed at Sutherland. Two white parents spoke up at Tuesday’s meeting in disgust over the assignment, calling it racist. And many black parents still hold the school in high regard. 

Today, the school’s student population is 56% black and 32% white. Just two decades ago, those numbers were nearly flipped.

‘This is a Beverly issue’

But the context of a changing neighborhood, one that 50 years ago was 99% white and soon after became split between white and black residents, puts in perspective the decades of vulnerability that have come with one of Chicago’s most integrated schools.

“This is a Beverly issue,” Manning said. “Unfortunately, this is something that every black person in Beverly who has been here within the last decade has felt.”

Just last spring, white nationalist flyers were plastered across Beverly, an episode that drew condemnation from business owners and the alderman as unrepresentative of the community.

On a much broader level, parents said the assignment was another reminder of the district’s overwhelmingly white teaching force. Of CPS’ 355,156 students, 36% are black, 47% are Latino, 4% are Asian and 11% are white. Yet when it comes to teachers, 21% are black, 21% are Latino, 4% are Asian and 50% are white.

Alisia Shelton, the president of the Sutherland parent-teacher association, told the Local School Council that the African animal assignment was “very offensive and very hurtful,” and that she’s always available to consult “about anything black.”

“At this day in age, everybody knows you can’t give a black kid a picture of a monkey and say, ‘Color this for Black History Month,’” Shelton said.

Tawana Scott, a mother of three kids at Sutherland, said she’s never felt unsafe in Beverly, the neighborhood in which she grew up. But, like other families, they’ve had some troubles.

Her daughter, now in high school, was called a racial slur in seventh grade at Sutherland. Her 6-year-old daughter was one of the students given the African animals assignment.

Manning said her son, too, was called a racial slur in December, by a student who spit in his face. Manning filed a police report, and school administration put a safety plan in place. But she said CPS officials, with whom she’s requested a meeting for weeks, haven’t taken it seriously.

The same student, several parents said, also called another black girl a racial slur and cut her braids. A CPS spokeswoman cited student privacy laws in declining to comment about the incidents.

‘Our culture is rich’

In lieu of the assignment, Scott sat with her daughter and taught her about famous black Americans and their contributions to the country. Manning said she often does that, too. Parents of children in other grades at Sutherland said they received much more appropriate assignments.

“It’s very important because our children need to know that our history did not just start by us being captured and murdered and raped and sodomized and tortured,” Manning said.

“And it’s important that they know that, just as much as anything, they are necessary. Not that they are important, that they are necessary. They are made from greatness. Our culture is rich, and it cannot be watered down by four-legged animals.”

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