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MFA apologizes after students from Dorchester school subjected to racism during field trip

The exterior of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The exterior of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

The Museum of Fine Arts apologized Wednesday after students of color from a Dorchester middle school said they were subjected to racism by staff and some patrons during a seventh-grade field trip.

In a letter posted to the museum’s website, top MFA officials apologized to the students and staff at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy for “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome. That is not who we are or want to be. Our intention is to set the highest of standards, and we are committed to doing the work that it will take to get there.”

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Some students from the charter school were subjected to racist and disparaging comments and treatment from MFA staff and museum patrons last Thursday, said Arturo J. Forrest, the school’s principal.

Forrest said about 30 seventh-grade students were on the trip, all of them students of color. More than 90 percent of the school’s 216 students are African-American or Latino, while 95 percent of the school’s staff are people of color, said Forrest.

“This was a strong group of students that went, they excelled academically,” said Forrest in a Wednesday phone interview. “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.”

Forrest said his staff has conveyed that one museum staff member reportedly told the academy students “no food, no drink, and no watermelon” at one point during the trip. There is a long history in this country of watermelon being used as a racist trope.

Forrest said he had heard other reports of museum security singling out students, following them as they progressed through exhibits while leaving white students alone.

Additionally, one museum patron reportedly made a comment to a female student about paying attention in the MFA so she could avoid a career as a stripper, while another patron referred to a group of students as “(expletive) black kids,” said Forrest.

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“There were many comments that made them feel unsafe throughout their time there,” he said.

Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, said Wednesday that an internal investigation into the academy’s experience at the MFA is ongoing. Depending on the findings of that probe, there could be consequences for museum staff, she said.

McCreary said she has been in contact with the academy, and that the probe’s outcome would be shared with school officials.

“If they feel they were treated in a way that was racist or unwelcoming, I don’t need to review video,” she said. “What I’m interested in is that it doesn’t happen again.”

Policies and practices of the museum will be reviewed in the wake of the school’s trip, according to McCreary.

“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,” she said.

The academy, which is located in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester, serves sixth through eighth grades. Forrest said the school is modeled after historically black colleges and universities. There is an emphasis on college and career readiness and a focus on cultural empowerment, said Forrest.

“We want students to be proud of who they are,” he said.

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On the MFA trip, the students “finally got to put a face to some of the things we go through in our curriculum.”

“It’s an unfortunate lesson to learn but inevitably it’s something we all go through as people of color,” said Forrest.

The school, said Forrest, wants assurances from the museum that no other students will have to weather racist abuse in the future. The MFA, he said, has “so many pieces that are of cultural importance for the students.”

“They should be able to have access to that and not feel unsafe,” he said.

One teacher who was on the field trip said students told her about the racism.

Marvelyne Lamy, a seventh-grade English teacher, said students told her the watermelon comment was made by an MFA staff member who was explaining the museum’s rules to them before a tour. Lamy said she did not hear the comment, but agitated students told her later during the trip.

“I was very angry, more so because it was said to children,” she said.

Lamy also noticed museum staff closely followed the group of students she was with throughout the visit. Whenever the students would start moving, the staffers would start moving, and whenever they stopped, so did the workers, she said.

“It wasn’t subtle,” she said. “It was blatant, in your face: ‘We’re going to watch every step you take.’ ”

In its apology to the school’s students, faculty, and parents, the MFA said, “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.”

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