A photo of a Miami Catholic school student wearing blackface sparked complaints from alumni after it was shared on the school’s website and on its social media accounts.
The photo was taken at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in southwest Miami-Dade County during a February Black History Month celebration in which fourth-graders dressed up as famous African-Americans and gave presentations about their accomplishments. One student chose former Secretary of State Colin Powell and painted his face black as part of the costume.
On Monday, the Catholic school — which serves students from preschool through the eighth grade — shared a photo of the fourth-graders on Facebook and Twitter and on the school’s homepage. Some alumni contacted the school to complain.
“I was pretty taken aback that not only did a student come to school dressed that way,” said Victoria Freyre, an alumnus who attended St. Thomas the Apostle in the 1990s, “it didn’t occur to anybody that that’s offensive, and it got to the point where they posted on a public online platform and nobody saw any issue with that.”
Freyre said she feels the school missed an opportunity to educate students about the history of blackface, which is considered offensive because of its historical association with white actors creating racist portrayals of African-Americans.
“This is something that could have been addressed and opened up a broader conversation about why blackface is bad,” said Freyre. “They need to be teaching their students that that kind of stuff is not OK.”
Carolina Bacallao, another alumnus of the school, said she was “appalled” at the photo, which she sent to other alumni to encourage them to contact the school. As a teacher, Bacallao said she would have approached the incident differently and asked the child to wash his face. “Use it as a teaching moment,” she said.
Archdiocese of Miami spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the child’s use of blackface was not intended to be offensive and that the school took down the photo after receiving complaints.
“This was a project not only to celebrate Black History Month but also to understand the diversity,” she said. “It was never the intention of a fourth-grade student to do anything other than be authentic in his presentation of the person he selected to research and imitate.”
Agosta said the student was trying to be “creative” and that she didn’t think the teacher or school administrators had raised any issues with his use of blackface. The principal of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School did not respond to a request for comment.
Freyre said she was disappointed with the school’s response. “I expected some kind of apology or explanation and they just thought they could get rid of it [the photo] and that would solve the problem,” she said. “It’s a broader problem but I feel like it was a missed opportunity to talk about racism and all of its forms.”