An Underground Railroad simulation at an elementary school brings a long-simmering political dispute out into the open, triggering a bizarre series of unfortunate events
Matt Taibbi, 12/17/21
February 5th, 2019. An educational consultant named Dr. Linda Deans walked to the lectern at a meeting of the Loudoun County School Board. Addressing issues like black student underrepresentation in the gifted programs and overrepresentation in disciplinary cases, she asked the board to remedy matters through more funding of diversity and inclusion positions. Loudoun had a diversity officer, but Deans stumped for a department.
“To be real about equity and inclusion, contracting out the work might be a good idea because insiders may be — hmm — influenced by politics,” she said, pausing to apply a dollop of contemptuous stank on the hmm. She went on: “I highly recommend that LCPS offer this serious work to a reputable organization, such as the Loudoun Freedom Center.”
The Center, where Deans worked, is a nonprofit founded by charismatic local pastor and new NAACP chapter president Michelle Thomas. The meaning was clear: Loudoun had race problems, and if the board wanted to be credited with taking those seriously, it had to make a financial commitment, and to the right destination.
Deans was followed by the Education Chair for the local NAACP chapter, Robin Burke. Burke and husband Steven had recently met with Loudoun’s Director of Teaching and Learning, and weren’t happy.
“On Wednesday, January 16th, 2019,” she said, “my husband and I attended a meeting facilitated by Mr. James Dallas to discuss our concerns regarding our son… being denied admission to the Academies of Loudoun.” She paused. “We are convinced that the admission process is disjointed, unfair and represents a clear example of historical institutional racism. Therefore, we expect now more than ever that our straight A-student [son] be unconditionally admitted to the Academies of Loudoun.”
The Board was silent for a moment, some members confused. They only set policy and had no power to intervene in an individual gifted admissions question. Also, the admissions process was blind: reviewers had no access to names or racial identities, seeing only test scores, grades, courses taken, etc. To some members, this was an obvious reply to any charge of “historical institutional racism.” To Burke, the blind nature of the testing was the racism.
The fact that Loudoun had race-neutral admissions was “true, therefore problematic,” she told me by email. “By removing personal identifiable information,” she added, “it is impossible to assess an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores.”
Burke had reached out to several officials about her son. After correspondence didn’t result in changes, she went public with complaints. Asked about this, she replied, “As the Chair of Education for the NAACP, I represent all students of color,” adding that, “These claims were brought to the attention of the School Board and the Superintendent,” whose “inaction led to the NAACP contacting the AGs office.”
Loudoun has a gruesome history on race and schools. In 1956, the county infamously voted to defund schools rather than follow the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education desegregation order. Not until 1962 did the first black student attend a “white” school. Segregation was essentially pried from the cold dead fingers of this county’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and suspicions in the black community naturally linger. However, the current controversies aren’t a clear continuation of civil rights-era battles. Some aspects may be similar, but the legal context at least is reversed: in place of a decades-long effort on the part of groups like the NAACP to expunge racial considerations from the law, the new thinking is that progress is impossible without them. Whether or not that’s a warranted belief is a separate issue, but it’s how the new debate is framed.
Heading into the winter of 2018-2019, a dispute between county officials and the NAACP had been escalating. This disagreement would eventually be memorialized in the aforementioned formal complaint to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, called NAACP Loudoun Branch vs. Loudoun County Public Schools.
Loudoun’s NAACP leadership increasingly felt statistical inequities in areas like gifted admissions or discipline were explained by racism, and policy proposals often mere cover for perpetuation of an inherently discriminatory system. For a long time, they clashed in this with an old guard of county officials trying to cling to do-gooder liberalism’s once-standard position that a variety of addressable factors, including racism but also economics and other issues, were the cause of discrepancies.
The latter group’s idea for addressing gifted admissions once involved things like Loudoun’s adoption of EDGE (“Experiences Designed for Growth and Excellence”). The plan was to provide “intensive, engaging support” early in elementary school to talented-but-disadvantaged students to help them compete in the difficult admissions processes ahead. The school system had long been pushing back against more drastic action, like eliminating standardized testing, that might heighten complaints about a lack of rigor in Loudoun’s once-celebrated school system. The county had already eliminated final and midterm requirements in 2015, leading some parents to complain of their kids being left unprepared for college.
NAACP officials were more and more uninterested in those concerns, demanding direct intervention to square ugly numbers. In 2017, after data was released showing 88% of Loudoun teachers were white compared with only 48% of students, then-NAACP chapter head Philip Thompson threatened to file a federal civil rights complaint. “We believe we will only see an increase in the number of minority teachers when LCPS puts requirements on the people hiring the teachers,” Thompson said.
Rhetorically, this was walking a fine line, since Supreme Court cases like the 1977 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke had deemed explicit racial quotas in public education illegal. According to the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Thompson hastened to add he wasn’t “suggesting the school division adopt racial hiring quotas,” merely applying pressure to meet “targets.” However, putting “requirements on the people hiring” seemed to have a clear meaning.
By 2019, the NAACP seemed out of patience, moving toward the Ibram Kendi conception of equity, which holds that “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy.” As Kendi puts it, “racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity.” Loudoun in this view fell under the latter category, even if the admissions inequity, for instance, overwhelmingly redounded to the county’s Asian minority. (Ironically, Asians were also massively underrepresented in school hiring in 2017, making up 3% of teachers despite being 20% of the student body, though this fact didn’t make it into the NAACP complaint).
When asked about the legality of quotas, which she would later publicly support, Burke’s response was that the legal system itself was part of the problem and therefore not relevant. “As you are aware, the legal system has protected and in some cases perpetuated systemic racism. It was LEGAL to own people,” she said. She added:
“LCPS needs to make of amends for the wrong they have done, by helping those who have been wronged, African American students and families. Reperations [sic].”
Late in the fall of 2018, a group of fourth-grade teachers at Madison’s Trust elementary school in Brambleton, Virginia got together to plan the curriculum for Black History Month in February 2019. At the time, principal David Stewart was following in the footsteps of Superintendent Eric Williams, described on school websites as a devotee of an educational theorist named Philip Schlechty, by pushing a program called Project-Based Learning. Schlechty scoffed at the idea that a teacher was a mere “facilitator” of “personal development,” seeing the educator as a more muscular figure who helped ensure the “functioning of a democratic society” by “transmitting the collective wisdom of the group” through “authentically engaging activities.”
Loudoun’s schools touted “Project Based Learning” as such an “engaging” approach that fused the “3 Rs” (a Relevant, Rigorous, and Responsive curriculum) and the “4 Cs” (utilizing Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity). What did those seven letters mean, at a school like Madison’s Trust? In practice, that classroom instruction might be bolstered by cross-pollinating lessons with a gym class.
The 4th grade team that fall was working on a “PBL” on “Notable African Americans.” One of the school’s three PE teachers volunteered that he’d been to a conference years before, where he’d heard about a plan that sounded to him like a potential complement to any lesson about Harriet Tubman.
Ian Prior of the Loudoun parent group Fight for Schools later brought details forward in a story for The Federalist, and noted in a longer private report that this teacher had attended the 2011 meeting of the Virginia Association For Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (VAPHERD) at the Hyatt Regency in Reston. There, a program was presented called “Underground Railroad”:
In “Underground Railroad,” kids in a PE class are led through an obstacle course simulating the path of slaves to safety along Tubman’s famous road to freedom. Along the way, they stop at various stations, where they might be introduced to a “drinking gourd” to learn that slaves used the Big Dipper constellation to help find the north star, or help each other move through hula hoops, or watch a video about Tubman, etc.
Such simulations have been going on for at least thirty years, if not longer. One educator I spoke with who’d used a version of the program, Geoffrey Bishop of “Nature’s Classroom” in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, said he thought he first came across the idea at a conference in New Hampshire 35 years ago.
The most famous “UGRR” simulation is the Kambui Education Initiative, a re-enactment founded by Kamau Kambui, a former devotee to a Malcolm X-inspired secessionist group called the Republic of New Afrika. The Initiative takes place in a thousand-acre slice of Minnesota’s Wilder Forest, dates back to the late eighties at least, and is part living museum, part outdoors adventure. Anthony Galloway, a pastor and equity coach who does use the term “critical race theory” in describing what his “Dare 2 Be Real” program teaches, cites experience with the Kambau Initiative as part of his credentials. However, both he and the current head of the Initiative, Chris Crutchfield, vehemently deny that he or Galloway had anything to do with any public school programs. “It’s abhorrent to me that people might think that,” Crutchfield says. “If it’s not done in the right way, it can be problematic.”
In the end, the origin story doesn’t really matter. As the New Yorker wrote last year, “UGRR” simulations became a craze beginning in the nineties, long ago reaching into public school classes from coast to coast. Writer Julian Lucas described it as part of a movement to replace the old Schoolhouse Rock heroes with progressive updates:
The runaway has emerged as the emblematic figure of a renovated national mythology, hero of a land that increasingly sees its Founding Fathers as settler-colonist génocidaires. In their stead rises a patriotism centered on slavery and abolition, and a campaign to set the country’s age-old freedom cult on a newly progressive footing.
No matter who came up with the Madison’s Trust lesson plan, the idea clearly grew out of this same nest of ideas, with the aim of valorizing Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, and other Railroad figures. Until there were complaints, there were plenty of progressive educators in Virginia who seemed to think these simulations were a good idea. A story in the Virginia Pilot from 2006 showed teachers boasting of how lifelike they’d made theirs.
In that case, a pair of PE teachers in Chesapeake “transformed their gym into an eerie obstacle course” and “allowed the school’s 800 students to experience a little of what the slaves encountered during their nighttime runs.” Parents volunteered to play roles as slave-catchers and “patrolled the gym to the recorded sounds of barking dogs and galloping horses,” and teachers added heavy doses of verisimilitude:
Students who made unnecessary noise or skipped obstacles found themselves caught and wearing gray construction paper manacles. There were no second chances. The slaves never got any, the teachers explained.
“Some first- and second-graders cried,” the Pilot noted, burying the lede just a tad.
A version of this was even officially approved for use in Loudoun County at one point, only to be discontinued years before the 2019 incident. Though the Loudoun County Schools declined to speak on the record for this story, it’s safe to say there’s disagreement about who signed off on what at Madison’s Trust, whose much watered-down version incidentally didn’t involve dogs or manacles. The Physical Education teachers are adamant that principal Stewart, as well as the Dean, Robert Rauch, visited the simulation in its first days — all of this took place between a Monday and a Wednesday on February 4th, 5th, and 6th, of 2019 — and gave it a thumbs-up. Other teachers and even Stewart tweeted about it in approval, claiming the students were “100% engaged.” Those messages have since been deleted.
An amazing part of this story is how close it came to never happening. “We would have been fine not going cross-curricular,” one of the three Physical Education teachers told me. “We’d have been just fine doing our normal stuff.”
Much later, what happened in the district would be portrayed as a white backlash against teaching the “truth” about America’s past. Buzzfeed for instance would eventually describe the Loudoun controversy as an effort by “right-wing activists” to “ban lessons and conversations around race, racism, and slavery.” A Washington Post article described local citizens as being against “efforts to promote racial justice,” and blamed Donald Trump and his followers for seeing “hateful lies” in “teaching about slavery and racism.”
Yet the triggering incident in Loudoun clearly involved an overenthusiastic attempt to teach students about the Underground Railroad. Any progressive’s knee-jerk response to this story would involve aching to go back in time, Terminator-style, to quash thoughts of sticking “conversations about slavery” in a period normally reserved for volleyball and sack races. The issue wasn’t teachers trying to sabotage an antiracist lesson plan, but rather trying too hard to teach one. Even if you saw it as problematic, it was surely the opposite of not wanting to “teach about slavery and racism.”
What happened next followed the pattern after simulations in Carrolton, Ohio, in 1997 (“Living-History Lessons Resurrect Old Wounds”), or Atlanta in 2013 (“Parent Says Slavery Experiment at Camp Went Too Far”) or Chicago in 2018 (“Illinois School Made Black Students Pretend to Be Slaves”) or countless other places: things went wrong. The typical complaint involved a black student coming home with a tale about having been asked to role-play a slave in school, followed by said child’s parent going somewhat understandably ballistic (“That’s when the blood vessel kind of broke,” is how one Atlanta parent described hearing his daughter’s story).
The parents of one black child complained about the Brambleton simulation, and what followed was a perfect metaphor for so much of what’s wrong with modern American politics.
Taking the dimmest possible view of the Madison’s Trust simulation, it was a misguided attempt by white teachers to get in the spirit of both Black History month and the Schlechty-ian concept of “authentically engaging activities.” One can imagine a rational response involving an air-clearing conversation between offended parents and school officials, followed by an apology, a possible re-think of certain academic fads, and maybe, depending on how conversations went, something like a course of sensitivity training for everyone involved, senior officials included.
It almost happened that way. The parents reportedly did have a meeting with Madison’s Trust officials, and there was an effort at an apology and an explanation. However, a national crisis ensued instead. Pastor Thomas went to multiple local media outlets in early February 2019 to decry the “sickening and racist” use of a “runaway slave game” that, she said, highlighted the need to commit to investments in race and bias training. “The incident” now became fodder for advancing the Attorney General complaint.
“Literally the top of the iceberg,” she said. “We have a longstanding list of incidents of racial discrimination.”
If there is a tide in the affairs of men, a flood now carried the NAACP forward. On February 6, 2019, when both the Madison’s Trust incident and Robin Burke’s speech to the Board were taking place, news came out that the state’s Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, had as a 19-year-old college undergrad done himself up in blackface. In the kind of perfectly preposterous detail that would mark many later events in this story, college-Herring was trying to look like the rapper Kurtis Blow of Basketball and If I Ruled The World fame.
“Shocking,” said Blow, when apprised of the news. “Totally offensive and disrespectful, degrading. It’s ugly. You know, I’m praying for my man Mr. Herring right now.”
Given that Herring’s boss, Governor Ralph Northam, had already been nabbed in his own blackface controversy, this was a Krakatoa-sized PR disaster for a high-ranking Democratic Party pol who reportedly still hoped to squeak through with his career intact, and run for re-election in 2021. Worse, Herring graduated from Loudoun schools, a fact Thomas seized upon.
“[Herring] graduated from Loudoun Valley, so of course he wouldn’t know what he was doing, going up, dressing as blackface, because blackface is never discussed in the curriculum,” she thundered. “The insensitivity is astronomical. We are in a racism crisis in Virginia.” Herring issued a statement apologizing for the “pain” he’d caused, underlining his commitment to “work affirmatively to address the racial inequities… that we know exist.”
By May 22nd, 2019, Thomas and the NAACP would file a formal complaint against Loudoun County with Herring’s office, eventually listing “Terms of Conciliation.” They demanded the elimination of standardized testing for advanced programs like the Academies of Loudoun in favor of a new, “holistic” process featuring minimum criteria like “final grade of C or above,” and appended as evidence the report of the outside consultants about to be invited in to give the schools a racial colonoscopy in the wake of the “runaway slave” incident. Herring would go on to adopt the consultants’ recommendations, and within a year, he would announce he was running for re-election, buoyed by the endorsement of — you guessed it — Loudoun NAACP chief Michelle Thomas.
All that still was to come, however. On February 26, 2019, before another gathering of the School Board, Thomas was still trying to pressure local officials into allowing the outside inspection. She called for the resignation of Superintendent Williams, among other things, and addressed the Board in fiery language.
“‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.’ Dr. Martin Luther King,” she began, gravely. “Since day one of the integration of Loudoun County public schools some sixty years ago, African-Americans have been under constant and utter threat. And 2019 is not so different from 1960, in that African Americans still have challenges with curriculum content — racist curriculum content. That is how we get to play a runaway slave game.”
Apparently in agreement that the Underground Railroad simulation showed thingsin 2021 America were not so different from 1960, one speaker after another, many of them white, got up to blast the racism of the Madison’s Trust PE teachers. The latter incidentally were placed on leave, while school leadership went unscathed (Stewart lost a shot at Principal of the Year, a fact that didn’t impress the teachers). All this happened just as a soon-to-be-white-hot controversy about a measure to expand protections for LGBTQ students was coming before the Board.
The Madison’s Trust incident would be rolled into that issue as well, brought up by speakers as part of a broad argument that Loudoun’s school system was inherently bigoted and in need of a house-cleaning. As the press presence became more conspicuous, speakers at public meetings increasingly wore their affiliations in a literal sense. Christian parents donned prominently displayed cross necklaces, while progressives wore rainbow badges and Black Lives Matter pins. After progressives spoke, audience members silently waved rainbow flags in a Town Hall version of the “jazz hands” phenomenon that, with minor alterations, would have perfectly fit the hand-raising portion of any Pentecostal ceremony.
“I’m here today to express my strong support for the formation of an ad-hoc committee on equity,” said Natalia Beardslee, an elementary school teacher in the district. “This committee is needed because students are being asked to play underground railroad games.”
“A true equitable culture will address the slave game,” said Zerell Welch.
“Get with it and end your Dixie Mentality!” said Pamela Lewis.
Burke also spoke. “We are requesting that Loudoun County admit 20% of African American applicants to the Academies of Learning for the 2019-2020 academic school year,” she said. “We are requesting that you appoint an independent team of outside professionals.”
The school administration would soon do just that. It’s hard to look at the document record and conclude anything but that under a blizzard of negative headlines, with leaders like Thomas calling for the heads of people like Superintendent Williams, the school system buckled, tossed a few gym teachers under the bus, and green-lit a full-tilt outside diversity audit as a way to ease political pressures. Some local political figures who initially welcomed what they thought would be a healthy course of “unconscious bias training” to address issues like hiring inequity soon found themselves in shock. Within a few months, the Loudoun schools were transformed into a Boschian hellscape of penthouse-priced equity consultants, who “saw race everywhere” to degrees so far beyond even the most demented Fox News fantasies that the corpse of Roger Ailes almost sat up in surprise.
A teacher I spoke with for this story, not based in Virginia, put it like this:
“Education is dominated by consultants,” she said. “They were former teachers, but they decide they actually want to make money, so they leave and then they start these companies.”
Just like soldiers-turned-defense contractors, or SEC investigators turned corporate defense lawyers, education consultants often end up selling their services at high-dollar rates to the same types of public entities where they once toiled, thanklessly and in the public interest, for small change. Enter the Equity Collaborative, headed by a lingo-spinning Stanford-trained ex-teacher called Jamie Almanzan, who by the summer of 2019 would become one of the most controversial names in northern Virginia.
Although the county insists the Collaborative’s “Equity Assessment” was in the works before the Madison’s Trust incident, and the firm did submit a small invoice for $6000 from August 2018 pointing to a pre-existing relationship, documents we obtained via a Freedom of Information request indicate that the first major scope-of-work agreement — which ultimately paid Almanzan’s firm roughly $500,000 for the assessment and other work at a rate of $5000 per person, per day — was not struck until April 4, 2019. Moreover, the expenditures were not approved by the School Board, which usually had a say in much smaller budget matters. (See the separate file containing the documents, with the curious chronology).
Almanzan and his company preach a diversity training gospel that’s increasingly popular with organizations ranging from Amazon to Goldman, Sachs to the Pentagon. They describe a pervasive, psychologized conception of racism that is so deeply entrenched at both an individual and a societal level that it can never be eradicated, only treated — constantly and by credentialed experts, of course. Firms like the Equity Collaborative are professional sin-hunters and good at what they do, smart enough to make sure clients don’t stray from the point by focusing on fixable problems. “Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty,” would be among their main initial observations about Loudoun.
For most of the first year after their arrival, few people outside school officials, a handful of local politicians, and a smattering of activists knew much about the work the Equity Collaborative was doing in Loudoun. By the fall of 2020, some conservative activists like Prior were beginning to raise alarms in publications like the Washington Free Beacon that had used FOIA requests to get hold of the Collaborative’s reports. These news stories contained excerpts that made the Collaborative’s “Assessment” sound like the lost papers of the Heaven’s Gate cultists, but not everyone was convinced they could really be that bad. People like Emily Curtis, a former Clinton Administration official who had never voted for a Republican, were skeptical. “I hadn’t fully lost my trust in mainstream media yet,” Curtis recalls. “So I said, ‘Point me at all this stuff.’”
Curtis read the raw documents. A lot of the ideas struck first-time readers like her as beyond bizarre, from “affinity groups” that regularly segregated kids according to race through an “Equity Ambassador” program that, as originally conceived, would have recruited a secret network of “Student Leaders of Color” to inform to school leaders. The Collaborative suggested these “ambassadors” collect “anonymous student stories/experiences regarding issues of racism, injustice and inequity” using an electronic form “to ascertain whether or not the student would like… the issue investigated.”* The Stasi, but for kids — awesome! Curtis, especially troubled by the affinity groups, tells a story of approaching various local Democratic officials with warnings like, “These issues you’re dismissing are going to hurt you in the next election.”
One prominent local Democrat scoffed in reply, to the effect that complaints were coming from Fox-watching racists only. When she approached another currently serving official to express concerns about the affinity groups, the official replied, “Have you read White Fragility? You need to do the work.” Curtis was aghast.
“I’m from the South. I felt like I’d walked into an old-fashioned tent revival,” she says. “This wasn’t politics. They were trying to save souls.”
The religious fervor was only just getting started. It would soon extend to national reporters, national politicians, and other click-hungry holy rollers, who were about to descend upon the county in droves. The Great Loudoun Equity Crusade was on.
Next: The Holy War
*In response to a later lawsuit over this plan, schools spokesperson Wayde Byard said the “Equity Ambassador” program was “open to students of all races who meet a set of criteria such as having a passion for social justice.” He acknowledged the original draft stipulated the ambassadors be students of color only, but said that draft was “released prematurely,” and race was “no longer a requirement.”