Local activists are calling for racial equity training for a South Dakota school district after its high school’s rodeo club cancelled a “slave auction” fundraiser amid social media backlash.
“Ignorance is one thing but straight-up blatant racism when you know the history of racism in our state is another,” said Julian Beaudion, a Black police officer who is part of the South Dakota Coalition for Justice and Equity and interim director of the South Dakota African American History Museum. “I don’t think there’s any excuse for what they did.”
For years, Faith High School’s rodeo club members offered their labor for a set amount of time to bidders in exchange for donations at an annual fundraiser. The Washington Post reported the Rodeo Club’s adult adviser called the event space to cancel the event. This year’s auction in Faith, South Dakota, was scheduled for Monday.
Donations fund student cowgirls and cowboys competing in rodeo competitions, public performance contests featuring events like bronco riding and calf roping.
The Faith School District’s superintendent and the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The South Dakota High School Rodeo Association said it doesn’t have any knowledge about the high school’s fundraising efforts and individual rodeo clubs and schools are responsible for their own fundraising, the Rapid City Journal reported. A Faith School District receptionist told the Journal the fundraiser, which includes a pancake supper and a pie auction, is not run by the school.
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Slave/branding auctions are a “staple event” for many high school rodeo clubs across the state, according to South Dakota Voices for Justice. The concept of a “slave auction” for fundraising purposes has existed in South Dakota since at least 2008, when the Belle Fourche School District held a slave auction fundraiser. There have long been calls across the state to stop labeling these events “slave auctions,” but the name stuck in Faith High School.
For Beaudion, the “slave auction” in Faith called back memories of people burning swastikas in parking lots and KKK recruitment flyers found at schools over the years in South Dakota.
“I would say it’s a slap in the face for me as a Black man, but we’ve dealt with racial issues in the state for a long time,” he said. “I can’t say that this was surprising.”
He said the “slave/branding auction” harkens back to “history with the slave being put on the auction block or branded as runaway slaves.” Beaudion called the event name “extremely traumatic” for the Black community.
Just over 2% of the South Dakota’s population is Black while 84% is white, according to the latest census data. With just 363 residents, Faith’s population is 96% white and has no individuals listed as Black, according to latest census data.
After the event was cancelled, Beaudion said he donated to the club, wanting the controversy to be a teaching moment rather than derailing the club’s fundraising plans. He also created a hashtag called #KeepingTheFaith to ask those who were critical of the name of the event to also make a donation to the rodeo club “in the name of educating the students about why the name should be changed.”
“We want to lead with empathy and compassion,” he said. “We’ve come to a crossroads. If they choose to do the right thing, we can all move forward and have this conversation together.”
Brianne Garr, a Sioux Falls resident who contacted school district officials demanding the event’s name be changed, said she felt bad the event was cancelled. Still, she said she is hurt by people denying the harm the name caused.
“That wasn’t my intent,” she said. “Fundraising for children’s programs is great. All we wanted was a name change.”
Part of making amends would be accepting the free racial equity training the South Dakota African American Museum has offered to the district, Beaudion said. The offer stands, he said, despite having received “absolutely no response” from district officials.
South Dakota Voices for Justice called for educators, administrators and students at all South Dakota school districts to do racial sensitivity training. It has also reached out to board members of the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association to demand a public apology and that they undergo training from the museum, according to a statement.
Social media discussion over the name has been heated with many mocking those calling for change as being sensitive and others offering new names like “Wrangler for Hire.”
“Just because you did it 50 years ago doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong at the time,” Beaudion said. “It’s always been wrong. We’ve been fighting against this for years. We’re just now getting this attention.”
Many people still don’t see what is wrong with the name, said state Rep. Linda Ruba, a Democrat.
“There’s just such a lack of understanding on some people’s part to walk in another person’s shoes,” she said.
“We have to chip away a little at a time at these mindsets through conversation, but you can’t force someone to think one way or another,” Duba added. “I just hope this controversy encourages people to stop and rethink.”
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