History packets for Utah high schoolers pulled for claiming ‘most slaves were generally treated kindly’

The packets came from Northridge Learning Center, a popular option for students taking core classes online.

(Nancy McKendrick) This photo comes for a history packet that Nancy McKendrick's daughter was using to make up credits through Northridge Learning Center.

History packets that claim “most slaves were generally treated kindly” in the United States and had “reasonable living conditions and hours of service” were pulled from the shelves of a Utah learning center this week.

Northridge Learning Center, a popular source of online classes and course packets for high school students across the state who need to make up credits, said it will no longer be distributing those materials and will rewrite the section on the Civil War.

“It is difficult to address a subject such as slavery, especially through an independent study packet versus classroom discussion,” said the center’s CEO, Alison D. Bond, in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune that was also sent to parents. “But we see how this section can be improved.”

(Nancy McKendrick) This photo comes for a history packet that Nancy McKendrick's daughter received from Northridge Learning Center.

It’s not clear how many students have used the packets, though, to get U.S. history credit. The center, which is privately operated, said only that they’ve been in circulation for “a while.”

Parents first brought the concerns to the learning center this week, with one writing that she has a Black son who would have been “crushed” to read those statements. And several individuals are now speaking out about the hurt caused by the description of slavery.

“The fact of the matter is that Africans were brought to this country in shackles and chains and forced to do manual labor,” said Emma Houston, the special assistant to the vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Utah.

In an interview with The Tribune, Houston added: “They were born into slavery and died in slavery. I am just beyond words that anyone would call that ‘kind.’”

Students can purchase the paper workbooks, which, if completed accurately and on time along with other requirements, can earn them credit for a failed course or as an alternative to taking the class in person at their school. Northridge offers a limited list of classes, such as math and financial literacy, needed for graduation, and most school districts across the state accept the credits.

Nancy McKendrick, who first brought up the issue, said her daughter was completing the packet this summer to make up for U.S. history credit she missed last year during the pandemic.

She said her daughter was reading it and couldn’t believe what it said, bringing the book out to show her mom the highlighted phrases.

At one point, the chapter states: “Many slaves worked so closely with their masters that they were treated as family.” It adds that “slaves were considered property so it was not in the best interest of a slaveholder to treat a slave poorly.” And it suggests many had nice housing.

It describes slaves frequently as property and not as humans, putting dollar values on their worth.

After that, it briefly notes: “But human slavery is still wrong and many cruel acts did take place.” And it describes some “rebellions” led by Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and Harriet Tubman.

There are also pictures of those who were whipped and beaten, which come on the page after saying they were treated “kindly.”

“It was just appalling to me to see that description,” said McKendrick, whose daughter is going into her senior year at Itineris Early College High School.

The charter school in West Jordan is not affiliated with Northridge Learning Center and does not review the materials, though it does accept the credits. The school used to be under Jordan School District but it is now run independently.

Houston is calling on the learning center to review all of its materials to make sure there are no other glaring inaccuracies. And she wants an outside and diverse committee to be involved in that process. She urges the center to use factual references, reputable sources and firsthand accounts from slaves to give an accurate portrayal of the atrocities suffered — which include sexual assault, beatings and abuse.

“This sounds like 1902 that they wrote this,” she said. “Individuals who were enslaved were not treated with kindness. That’s a fact. They were stripped of their names and cultures and everything. It’s an issue of reporting history — not the history that we want it to be, but the actual history of how individuals were treated.”

The packets are produced by North Farm Enterprises LLC, a farming operation in northern Utah, which is also run by Bond, the CEO of the learning center. Why the two are connected isn’t clear from business documents available to the public.

It does not appear that the private organization publicizes the identity of the individuals hired or responsible for writing the packets. The center is, though, accredited through Cognia, a national education site and is expected to follow state core standards to operate in Utah.

And it has several locations here. McKendrick said she picked up the packet for her daughter in Layton.

Houston said she’s glad the family pushed back on the material. “For individuals who see this, it’s OK to not be silent. They can challenge it,” she added.

The issue with the packets comes as the nation has been divided over the debate with critical race theory, with some conservative parents in Utah pushing for limits on how race is talked about in the classroom. Others, though, have spoken out about their children being called racist names or having their braids pulled; they urge discussions about diversity so there is more understanding.

The Utah Board of Education recently approved guidelines for what teachers now can and cannot say about equity and inclusion.

Another school in Utah — Centennial Middle School in Provo — came under fire in the spring for randomly assigning students to be slaves and slave masters for a project about the Civil War. And before that, Maria Montessori Academy in North Ogden had initially allowed parents to opt their students out of learning about Black History Month.

Adrienne Andrews, the chief diversity officer at Weber State University, said these issues continue to arise in Utah and need to be called out each time.

“To have a history makeup packet say these things is obscene,” she said. “And it negates the facts and real lived experiences of people who were brutalized. That’s not OK. Knowing the truth does not mean we have to stay in that history. It means we can learn from that history and commit ourselves to not doing that again.”

Andrews and Vikki Deakin, who are both Black, question who vets the curricula and how it is still being used. Deakin is a professor of history at Weber State University.

“I’m not surprised, but it still makes me sad,” Deakin said. “It’s 2021, so I don’t even know why we’re still having this conversation about slavery, why we’re using the language that slaveholders used to justify slavery.”

She paused. “Clearly, the adults need as much education as the kids do.”

The same issues come up in other states, too, Deakin added. In Alabama, a teacher had kids go out and pick cotton “to see what it was like.” And in Texas, some districts refer to slaves as servants.

“But they weren’t servants,” Deakin said. “They had no choice. They were held against their will. Holding someone in bondage is inherently cruel and barbaric. Kindness is not a word that belongs in this narrative.”

In addition to physical abuse, there was also psychological torture with slaves, she said. Many slave owners would threaten to take family members away, for instance.

“You don’t get to have slave owners get away with it,” Deakin said. “I’m just so tired of it.”

The Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter is also speaking out, calling for more transparency with the learning center and revision of the material.

The organization’s new president, Rae Duckworth, said: “The truth of my people is not being taught.”