By: Aaron Siebert
You read the title correctly: the “Jenks High School Slave Week.” This was a fundraiser/school dance event that actually took place at Jenks for a whole week every April, from the years 1968-1975 (At least those were the years recorded from the yearbooks). As I was going through old Trojan Torch archives, I came across an event that was apparently called “slave week.” I immediately started drawing pictures in my mind, as I’m sure you’re doing right now. Rather than jumping to conclusions, however, I decided to look further into the history.
My intention with this article isn’t to point fingers at any person in particular. Nor is it to cast a dark light upon any members of the current Jenks administration or student body. When people hear about the “JHS Slave Week” they begin thinking. Some won’t find it possible to accept that anything on this level took place here at Jenks, while others may accuse the JHS school board of being racist. I want to present this aspect of Jenks’ history as honestly as possible; I want everyone who reads this to have an untainted understanding before they begin drawing their own conclusions.
Slave Week started with an auction each year. The Seniors and Juniors at Jenks High School posed as the “masters” of the volunteering Freshmen and Sophomores. The students were often seen dressing up in stereotypical “slave” or “slave owner” costumes. The auction took place in the auditorium after a “slave show” where the underclassmen were shown off before being purchased by the highest bid from a Junior or Senior.
For an entire school week the “slaves” would assist their “masters” with whatever they were demanded to do, with rules in place. Underclassmen “slaves” would carry books, bring food, follow the upperclassmen wherever directed, etc.
This all led up towards the end of the week. On Friday the “slaves” would “revolt” against their ”masters,” shifting their positions. All of this culminated in the big event: The annual Slave Dance. At the dance both the “slaves” and “masters” would be equally part of the celebration. Admission was $1 per person.
The Rules of Slave Week
As this was a school sponsored event, it had rules pertaining to conduct and specifics. The rules for the week were as follows (Directly quoted from the 1970 Slave Week):
- No limit on the number of slaves a person can own as long as they can pay for them.
- No limit of masters a slave can have as long as their name is on the official master and slave list.
- If there is any disagreement between master and slave, present it to a Student Council Officer.
- The masters will be slaves on Friday and the slaves will be masters.
- The term of the students which are bought as slaves begins at 8:00 in the morning and ends at 3:30 in the afternoon.
- No one will be masters or slaves at the slave party.
- Slaves must be paid for Monday morning when bought.
- If any slave is late to class because of his master, both will stay in D-Hall.
- Slaves do not do master’s homework.
- If the slave hides from the master there will be a penalty.
- There will be a 25 cent minimum for open bidding.
- No money will be taken from slave by master.
- Masters cannot order slaves to attack or harass other slaves.
- No Hats worn inside school building
- No shorts allowed.
- No slacks worn by girls.
- Masters will tell slaves what to wear, as long as it is reasonable.
- Slave week officially begins Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m.
It’s the most obvious question. What is the reasoning behind such an event? Well, the answer centers around a mix of innocence and ignorance.
The group behind Slave Week was the Jenks Student Council. When we look at the yearbook and newspaper articles referencing the event, it was nothing more than a method of raising funds for their organization and providing a fun experience for the students of Jenks. The yearbooks mention Slave Week as casually as they reference homecoming or any other event.
The money raised from Slave Week went directly to funding STUCO and the Slave Dance.
The Civil Rights act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based upon a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Civil Rights act of 1968 was a follow up that focused on housing discrimination. While these two laws don’t have anything to do with the focus of this article directly, they do demonstrate an important point.
These landmark acts were heard throughout the country. They weren’t just legislative changes, they were part of a national social evolution. To be racist was finally becoming less normalized.
Now I must tell you my point in giving this information. The earliest record of Slave Week at Jenks High School is from the year 1968: the same year the second Civil Rights act passed.
I do not wish to make you believe that the STUCO or the administration purposely started Slave Week as a result of the passing of anti-discriminatory laws. My point is that, during an integral time for progress in The United States history, JHS was part of the problem, and remained so for at least seven more years.
As easy as it is to feel like the 1970s were a long time ago, it’s a far more recent period than most treat it. The majority of people who participated in Slave Week are still alive, and some of them still live in Jenks. I was fortunate enough to speak with a man who participated in Slave Week in the years 1974 and 1975, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I don’t think anyone knew what they were really doing,” he said. “For most of us it was no different than any other type of school spirit event. I remember being the, uh, ‘slave’ for a Junior boy, who was my friend, and it was a bizarre thing. He had me dress in raggedy clothing, which was strange, and I just did a few odd jobs for him throughout the week.”
His duties as a “slave” ended at the dance.
“The ‘Slave Party’ is what the whole week was building up towards,” he said. “I think the idea was that since nobody’s a slave by the end of the week it was all ok. All part of a celebration, and the slaves got to be masters for a bit after the ‘revolt.’ We really treated these awful things so casually.”
With the benefit of time, he’s had the time to reflect on the change in societal acceptance.
“It’s one of the most embarrassing things to look back at,” he said. “It should’ve been clear during the time that we were doing some really bad stuff. Especially since I had black classmates back then. We were dumb kids who didn’t understand what it all meant, plain as day as it was.”
From the words of someone that took part in the event, and from the motivation of the student council, we can safely assume that back in the day people viewed Slave Week as harmless.
Now, it’s easy to see how flawed that reasoning is in modern times. But keep in mind that the students of the past were blind to what was wrong with such an event, as obvious as it was. It’s important to know our history, so it doesn’t repeat itself in any way.
We need to be aware about things like “Slave Week.” We need to make sure we learn from the past and make sure to always be analyzing ourselves. It’s easy to think that this was from a far gone period, but in the grand scheme of things this was very recent in history, and people need to remember.
Looking back, we can assume that “Slave Week” happened because it was considered “harmless.” They didn’t consider how an event that was made “for fun” could possibly have a negative effect on others by making light of an incredibly evil time in our nation’s history.
Over the years, however, we’ve become better at listening to others’ perspectives. (Not that it was impossible to talk to people who came from a different background fifty years ago, but people didn’t really care enough to try.) Today, we care enough to make improvements, and communicate with those with different mindsets. This is how things get better, so let’s continue analyzing the effects that our decisions will have on others.
While the people who participated in Slave Week might not have given it a second thought, we today don’t need to make the same mistake. We can stay scrutinizing our actions, and seek (and listen to) the opinions and thoughts of others.