A Florida elementary school teacher resigned from his job this week after a co-worker removed a bulletin board he made featuring prominent Black Americans like Martin Luther King Jr. and Colin Powell alongside the Pledge of Allegiance—because it was allegedly deemed “not age-appropriate” for students.
Special education teacher Michael James, 61, sent his resignation notice to the superintendent of Escambia County Tim Smith and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday explaining his reason for leaving O.J. Semmes Elementary School in Pensacola. James, who’s white, criticized them for creating and allowing an environment in school where the celebration of Black figures in the classroom is grounds for conflict.
“Am I to believe Escambia County Schools employs those that dislike African Americans?” James wrote in his letter, according to the Pensacola News Journal, which first reported the story. “Is there a dislike in anything that states ‘One Nation Under God’ in it?”
A spokesman for the school district told VICE News that the incident was already under investigation.
While decorating his classroom in preparation for his first academic year at the school Monday, James told the outlet he put up a display showing at least five Black American heroes, including Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver. Just a week into the job, the teacher said that he spent about $58 of his own money and hours of his time creating the board because O.J. Semmes is located in a predominantly Black part of the county with a predominantly Black student body, and wanted students to see important historical figures who looked like them.
When a behavior analyst and behavior coach came by the room to help James prepare, one of them started taking down the posters, according to James.
“She said something along the lines of, ‘It wasn’t age-appropriate,” he recalled.
James said that when the educator noticed a portrait of former President Barack Obama near his desk, she grabbed that too, adding that he didn’t “need to put this up either” because “the kids are too young.”
“I thought, ‘This is the first Black president,’” James said. “I’ve been teaching special education for 15 years, and it really floored me when she did that.”
The district’s spokesperson told VICE News that the two educators refute James’ account of what happened. They say they only challenged the placement of the poster because there are state-required “curricular materials” that are supposed to be placed behind the teacher’s desk. They also say that they asked James if he minded that the poster be removed, to which they say he agreed.
“The posters were left in the classroom, for Mr. James to use as he so chose,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Had Mr. James objected at that time or had he raised his concerns with school administration, we believe this situation could have been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”
According to the Pensacola News Journal, though he initially let the teacher remove the poster, James said the more he thought about what she did, the more upset he became. James said he was already questioning the institution because it was in disrepair, which he believed to be a sign of the lack of investment in the majority Black school.
“I feel like sometimes they are taken advantage of and no one is speaking for them and that school,” he said. “I’m wondering what kind of equitable division of money is being done for that school compared to other schools in other wealthier areas of Pensacola or Escambia County.”
James considered reporting the incident to the principal but ultimately decided that school leadership would do little to fix the issue, prompting him to resign.
Earlier this year, Florida passed the Stop Woke Act, barring schools from teaching topics that suggest certain Americans are oppressed or privileged based on their race, color, sex, or origins. The bill was a major win for Gov. DeSantis who has been a staunch opponent of critical race theory and has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the impact race has had on the U.S.
At least one of the governor’s political opponents, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, said that James’ story is the direct result of DeSantis’ stance on education.
James, who’s taught at schools in Hawaii, Georgia, and Alabama, told the News Journal he has few concerns over finding another job in the coming weeks.
“I’ll be teaching somewhere in a month,” he said. “I have excellent credentials.”