A Very Bad Idea for an Auction by
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From the yearbook

Somehow, the Student Government Association of my high school came up with the idea of a having an auction to generate school spirit and raise money for a scholarship.  You know, one of those fanciful ideas where someone is humiliated for a good cause.  The plan was to recruit male volunteers to be “sold”, for a term of some hours, at a “slave auction”.  It was 1967, in the middle of civil rights protests.

The plan was to recruit male volunteers to be “sold”, for a term of some hours, at a “slave auction”.  It was 1967, in the middle of civil rights protests.

When it was announced, there was not universal enthusiasm, but the only ones who spoke up were a couple of kids who were fairly new to the school.  Karl and Elsa I think they were, brother and sister, fellow travelers I knew in passing from the Unitarian youth group and the school’s John Peter Altgeld Society (an Illinois governor who pardoned three of the men convicted in the Haymarket affair and supported workers’ rights). I recall that they affixed a large poster with some sort of manifesto in the school lobby, objecting strongly to the whole concept, calling it racist and blind to history.

The school was stunned.  The white, suburban Maryland public high school students protested vigorously.  This wasn’t a real slave auction, just for fun.  Slavery didn’t exist anymore and dredging up that ancient history was pointless.  What was any different really than having a dunk tank as a fund raiser?  Gloria (one of two Black students in a school of nearly 2000) didn’t mind or think it offensive—we asked her.  Why make a big deal of something harmless?  Really, why are you making this a problem?

The auction proceeded, but it did spark some reflection.  Why were all the students in the high school white, while the only visible people of color in the community were lined up at the bus stops, returning to Washington DC after working in the suburban houses all day?  Was slavery really ancient history?   What were all those civil rights people talking about?

Karl and Elsa, the brave troublemakers, were vilified. However, there was no slave auction the following year.  This happened over fifty years ago, and yet (mostly white) people still ask what the fuss is all about when it comes to racial justice.  It is still fraught to take a stand and our actions still make a difference.

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such an interesting story and commentary, Khati. I remember “harmless” slave auction fund raisers in my lily white, Detroit suburban school also, but it didn’t raise awareness. No one blinked. Good for the students in your school for asking the hard questions and causing others to think. Now we look at what’s going on in this country and have to wonder just how much progress has been made (obviously we have made progress, but when we see how the Republicans handled Ketanji Brown Jackson’s judicial hearings, we really have to wonder what’s going on here). Gosh, that made me think of the great Marvin Gaye song, “What’s Going On?”.

  2. Suzy says:

    I had forgotten about it until I read your story, but we did this at my high school too! As I recall, it was only boys who were auctioned off, and only girls who bid on them. Sounds like that was the case at your school too. I don’t think it occurred to anyone to be offended by the term “slave.” And in those days of male dominance in every sphere, it was exhilerating that for one day, girls could boss guys around.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Interesting—yes, I think it did have aspects of a turn-the-tables Sadie Hawkins thing. Even so, especially given the history of the US, it’s remarkable that we were so unaware in the white high school that a “slave auction” could be seen as harmless fun. The current efforts to curtail learning more about race and history is distressing—“let’s pretend it doesn’t matter or wasn’t even that bad” is dangerous. It’s not about feeling guilty, just learning from history.

  3. Marian says:

    I’d never heard of something like this, Khati. It’s horrible but in some ways entirely predictable, which is sad. Thanks for a very sobering take on an auction gone wrong.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Good—glad you never heard of it and I hope that fund-raising idea has gone extinct. I almost wondered if I had remembered this correctly—hadn’t thought of it until this prompt—but when I found the unapologetic yearbook entry, I knew it was not in my imagination

  4. Khati, I hope at some future time the kids on the student government got down to Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum to see what slavery was really all about, and why their auction was a travesty!

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Fascinating story, Khati. It is importnat to note, as you do, that this was fifty years ago. I’m not sure even I would have found it offensive then, as clear as it is now. Conversely, think of how many Americans today would still say, as you also note, “What’s the fuss all about?” Indedd, I was just reading today about how Trump was opposing one of the candidates for Senate from Ohio becasue his family owns the Cleveland major league baseball team and Trump was outraged that this guy’s family allowed the team to change its name form “Indians” (complete with a racist logo) to “Guardians.”

    Sadly, we have not evolved. Thank you for reminding us so well, if so sadly.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, that is kind of the point. People really struggled to see what could be objectionable about this fundraiser, even after it was pointed out by a couple of students. Looked at in hindsight, it seems pretty obvious why it was such a bad idea, but it illustrates how lost in the cloud of white being “normal” and slavery “not relevant” our high school was–there were no bad intentions, but there was definitely cluelessness. Kind of like not seeing racism when everyone around you is white. As you point out, there are plenty of people today who still can’t see.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What a terrible idea in the name of fundraising. I guess the students and whatever adults who worked with them back then were both clueless and in need of a history lesson. This is a painful example of white privilege, which wasn’t really a thing at my mostly white high school either.

  7. I would love to know what great contributions this brother-and-sister pair of activists made in their later years!
    I’m happy that our school district in Indiana never had a “slave auction.” However, we did have a minstrel show,, put on by parents (white folks in blackface) as a fund-raiser.
    You really enhanced this story with the illustration, right out of the Yearbook. Well done.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I would love to know what happened to them too—in fact I tried a google but no luck—maybe the name was too common. I bet looking back on the
      Minstrel show in your school district is pretty cringe-worthy too. Did anyone object at the time? Maybe people have evolved at least a little.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    I was eleven that year, so memories are few. I vaguely recall one white kid being “Aunt Jemima” one Halloween and I can’t remember that he got any blowback for it. After MLK’s assassination, it would have seemed unthinkable to most of us.

  9. Jim Willis says:

    Wow, Khati! Some ideas do just seem better on paper than in reality, and you’re right — this was one of them. It made me think about some of the crazy ideas we came up with in high school, too, though!

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