Marion County school sparks controversy with permission slip for Black National Anthem

College Park Elementary officials said slips were intended to keep school within state guidelines

OCALA, Fla. – Controversy sparked in Marion County after one elementary school sent out a permission slip to learn about the Black National Anthem ahead of an after-school performance.

Some students at College Park Elementary received a permission slip to learn about and sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the Black National Anthem.

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A spokesperson with Marion County Schools said that only children in Grades 3-5 participating in the performance of the song received the slip. The performance is a part of a larger Black history Month program put on by the school.

Some school leaders said this has been bad timing, but it opens up a broader conversation on how schools are tackling teaching race and history after recent legislation has been passed.

“I want there to be genuine conversations,” said Eric Cummings, Marion County School Board member from District 3. “It’s unfortunate this had to be initiated from a permission slip.”

Cummings said the permission slip caught his attention after parents, activists and others reached out to him due to the vague nature of the form.

It reads for its purpose: “participate in presenting historical facts regarding African-Americans and/or singing the Black National Anthem.”

There is no other description of activity or performance, and it is labeled as “extra-curricular”

“There is no real explanation to any of this, so it leaves you to think whatever,” Cummings said.

Cummings said the debate comes from one lyric in the second stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“One line that I guess that they feel is the one line that ‘We have come treading our path through the slaughtered,’” Cummings said.

Cummings explains “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was created by James Weldon Johnson, a Black American writer and civil rights activist from Jacksonville. Cummings said the song is a part of not only Black history but state history as well, which led to some of his own confusion about the situation.

News 6 was able to talk to some concerned parents about the situation, many learning about it also saying they were confused why a permission slip was needed.

One mother who didn’t want to be identified said, “It just didn’t sit right to send home one form for one particular month and nothing else.”

College Park Elementary’s Principal Teresa Forsyth declined an interview but sent this quote:

The same mother who didn’t want to be identified said in response, “I didn’t get a form for anything Christopher Columbus-related or anything other culture-related. I mean, I don’t see why that’s an option.”

Another parent, Malcolm Shelley, added, “I think that is going a bit far right there. I mean, when I was growing up, everybody learned about Black history, so it wasn’t that something that had to be, you know, written off on.”

School leaders say Marion County has become the 11th school district to receive “exemplary status” last year for its Black history curriculum.

A spokesperson for the school district also explains each school designs its own activities and ways to celebrate Black History Month.

For College Park Elementary, the spokesperson said College Park Elementary has celebrated Black History Month for many years with student-led biography projects on morning news programs, special displays in the school library and other student-involved activities.

This year, the school planning committee, which reports to the principal, suggested students sing the Black National Anthem as part of the celebration.

Cummings said with the passing of recent legislation like a ban on critical race theory, it’s left some administrators and teachers second-guessing their curriculum. He added that he stands behind Forsyth as a principal but said it’s time to have tough conversations.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had those conversations since this legislation has come out,” Cummings said. “It’s just been you’re not going to do this and you can’t do that, but you’re still going to have to have a conversation because let’s face it, Black History Month is going to come again next year.”

Cummings said a time for those tough conversations has not been set but will be in the works.

A Black History Month event is still scheduled near the end of next month after school, where students are set to perform the Black National Anthem. At last check, this has not changed.

News 6 will make sure to update you on any developments on-air and online.

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About the Author:

Brian Didlake joined the News 6 team as a reporter in March 2021.