Racially offensive scarecrow taken down

Charter School uses it as teachable moment.

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A scarecrow that was part of a Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School fundraiser has been taken down after it was deemed racially offensive. The scarecrow, which was on display outside the YMCA in Oak Bluffs, was created by an unidentified Charter School parent and had been taken down even before it was brought to the school administration’s attention.

The scarecrow depicted tennis player Serena Williams with blackface, using a ski mask, hand and leg coloring, and accentuated lips and eyes, bearing a resemblance to offensive Jim Crow imagery.

Many scarecrows are placed outside Island businesses as part of the school’s annual scarecrow festival. Charter School Director Peter Steedman told The Times that students and their parents make the scarecrows and then place them in front of participating businesses who pay to have them. Those funds go directly back to the school to fund student field trips and professional development for teachers. This marks the 19th year that the school has held the festival. While the school holds a scarecrow-building workshop for students, many of the scarecrows are made at home.

Steedman, who is in his first year as director of the Charter School, was sent a picture of the YMCA scarecrow after it had already been taken down, and learned it had been up in some form last year. Steedman said the Charter School has spoken to the parent who created the scarecrow, and used it as an opportunity to educate that person on racial issues. He said the parent had no intent to be racist.

The Times was sent the same picture Steedman saw. He had not heard of or seen the scarecrow prior to seeing the picture. “I understand that we have caused some hurt in the community, and for that I am deeply sorry,” Steedman said, adding that the scarecrow does not reflect the school, its values, or its pillars: “I take full responsibility.”

Steedman has spoken to the YMCA, apologized, and said the scarecrow will never go back up again. The YMCA’s director of operations, Nina Kiendzior, told The Times the YMCA supports the Charter School, and wanted to participate in the festival. The YMCA was not told which scarecrows they would get ahead of time, or when they would be put up. The YMCA promptly removed the scarecrow after a member requested it be taken down.

The scarecrows around the Island depict notable people and fictional characters, such as writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

In the future, Steedman said, he will take measures to make sure the scarecrows are looked at more carefully, and he will see each one before it is placed in front of an Island business.

“There are some fences that need to be mended, and I am more than happy to meet with anyone or talk with anyone to mend those fences in the community,” Steedman said.

The Times has seen a picture of the scarecrow and has decided not to publish it.