SUMTER, S.C. — Bates Middle School in Sumter is receiving backlash after its principal seemingly tweeted out a picture of a school project showing a figure with a noose around its neck.
"It didn't trigger me, but other people, it may have triggered them," Sumter resident Lateshia Thames explained. "We could be just outside looking in, but from the outside, it looks bad. It looks really bad on Bates."
Thames attended Bates Middle in 1990. When she saw the screenshot on Facebook, at first she didn’t believe it.
"They were like, ‘This happened at Bates.’ I said ‘No way," she told me. "Like, I was taking up for them because I went, I went to the school and I knew, like, we never did anything like that."
The picture shows a now-deleted tweet from what appears to be the school’s principal’s account, highlighting a student's project for an eighth grade history class.
"The principal was not in the classroom at the time when the projects were being presented, but did stop by to see the hard work the student had put into his project," according to a statement from Sumter School District.
For the assignment, students were given a list of options for a project on the American Revolution, parent Kymburlea Sweat explains.
"The project was about Andrew Oliver," Sweat said. "And it was about taxes!"
The district's statement reads: "An eighth grade South Carolina history teacher provided a menu board of assignments relating to the Revolutionary War. The student selected the following: construct a model of an effigy that may have been used during the American Revolution period. This particular project was an effigy of a tax collector."
Shawn Franklin was in the history class at Bates. He said he was "shocked" by the reactions to the project online.
"I didn’t know people were gonna react like that," Franklin said. "It’s not about racism if that’s what they think it is. It’s not about that."
According to the history books, Oliver's job was to enforce taxes, which led him to become the target of violent protests. That context was missing from the tweet, Thames tells me.
"Nobody knows how they're thinking or how they're feeling," Thames said. "Nobody knows that."
Resident Raymond Charles agrees.
"A lot of people think that this was indeed racist," Charles said. "Not by far in my opinion."
Instead, Charles tells me he thinks it was a misunderstanding. He posted the screenshot in a Facebook group, which the community quickly responded to.
"I'm glad to get the attention that it did get, especially from the Sumter community because I see that they are aware," he shared.
Pastor James Goodman says he has received calls from concerned parents throughout the day.
"I don't think it was to be racial. But we have to understand the climate that we're in," Goodman said. "Can you imagine some of the kids especially some of the kids of color walk in and they see this thing standing here with a noose around his neck? Well, it's just going to cause a lot of anxiety."
"We know for us what the noose has represented over the years," he continued. "Now, I don't think this particular child had any real intent with the noose but I think that the the adults in charge should have thought about the climate that we're in and should have been more sensitive. "
In the statement, the school district says it has spoken with the principal, teacher, student, and parent regarding the cultural sensitivity and how it could have been perceived without context.
"I think it should be used as a learning opportunity, as a teachable moment," Goodman shared. "We have to be very sensitive, especially when it comes to our middle school kids, our high school kids, school kids in particular."
For Thames, part of that lesson is to avoid hitting the "Send" button without thinking.
"Keep stuff like that off Facebook, because that's that was it was, it was terrible," Thames explained. "It was horrible in my eyes. So I know, like, the people that they seen it. It was horrible in their eyes as well."
Charles echoed that sentiment.
"Don't be so quick because nowadays as fast as you post something, it will get screenshotted so people will screenshot it," he said.
Charles tells me that while this seemed to be a misunderstanding, it's not something the community should forget.
"We have to stay on this. And a lot of times time has this way of fading people away, and so this can't be a situation to where we just wait it out," he explained. "This is something that we have to fight weeks, months and years down the line because we need answers."
In response to the situation, the district provided the following information about actions taken: "Sumter School District officials have spoken with the principal, teacher, student, and parent regarding the cultural sensitivity of the project and how it could have been perceived by those who did not know the background of the assignment."