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Yesterday, May 22, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston issued an apology for a series of racist encounters experienced by middle school students during a school trip to the institution.
A group of 30 seventh graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester faced prejudiced remarks by MFA staff and patrons during their visit to the museum last Thursday, according to Arturo J. Forrest, the academy’s principal. He says that all of the students attending the trip were children of color; over 90 percent of the school’s population is Black or Latinx.
“This was a strong group of students that went, they excelled academically,” Forrest told the Boston Globe. “The shock of it for them was, ‘We are the top and we carry ourselves the right way as leaders.’ You know, it was very eye-opening for them.” The academy uses historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as its inspiration, focusing its educational model on college and career preparation, and cultural empowerment.
“It’s an unfortunate lesson to learn but inevitably it’s something we all go through as people of color,” Forrest added, also saying that “There were many comments that made them feel unsafe throughout their time there.”
Students reported that one MFA staffer told them “no food, no drink, and no watermelon” while explaining museum rules. Forrest also was told by an academy staffer that she witnessed students being profiled during their time at the museum, with museum security trailing them, but disregarding white students from a different group.
“It wasn’t subtle,” Marvelyne Lamy told the Boston Globe, a seventh-grade English teacher who attended the trip. “It was blatant, in your face: ‘We’re going to watch every step you take.’”
On Monday, Lamy posted a public Facebook status detailing the students’ experiences. She says a seventh grade girl was disparaged for dancing to music in an exhibition by a patron, and was told it was a shame she was stripping, rather than learning. She says that a woman who saw the students standing in the doorway of an African exhibit pronounced, “Never mind there’s fucking Black kids in the way.” She says she reported the incidents, but did not receive an apology initially, but was offered tickets to return. She ended the post with the words, “I will not stop until action is taken and people are held accountable.”
The museum confirmed with Hyperallergic that the students reported incidents with several staff and several visitors, but declined to comment on the details of its investigation into the events.
In an open letter from MFA Leadership Team, administrative staff addressed the “range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made [the students] feel unwelcome.”
“We want to apologize specifically to the students, faculty, and parents of the Davis Leadership Academy,” the letter continues. “We deeply regret any interactions that led to this outcome and are committed to being a place where all people trust that they will feel safe and treated with respect. We look forward to ongoing conversation and commit to using this situation as an opportunity to learn and create a culture of unwavering inclusion.”
The letter says that Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s Chief of Learning and Community Engagement, immediately reached out to the academy’s director with an apology and has continued direct communication with him since the museum became aware of the events. MFA Protective Services are undergoing a review of the situation, and museum policies are also under review. There may be consequences for museum staff depending on the results of this investigation, which will be shared with the academy.
“This is really about creating a culture of inclusivity in the museum, and as an institution in the city we want to be a leader in that space,” McCreary told the Boston Globe. “If they feel they were treated in a way that was racist or unwelcoming, I don’t need to review video. What I’m interested in is that it doesn’t happen again.”
“As we work to grow our community, we need to be sure that everyone feels welcome here — we want this to be your museum,” the letter promises.
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