As Ima Freedslave approached the witness stand, she raised her right hand, swore to tell the truth and recalled the story of how U.S. Army Gen. William T. Sherman and his troops freed her from slavery on the mayor’s plantation.
“I am finally free,” she said. “General Sherman also made me a private in his army. I would not want to see him behind bars.”
Her testimony did little to protect Sherman, who was later found guilty of war crimes by a jury.
Despite the costumes, the recent case against Sherman in Forsyth County Magistrate Court was simply a mock trial by fifth-graders from Brookwood Elementary School.
“It was cute. They had the whole kit and caboodle,” said Chief Magistrate Walker Bramblett. “They had the prosecution team, the defense team, several different bailiffs, a jury.
“And after the trial, they went back and deliberated the case and came back with the verdict. It was very realistic.”
The proceedings were organized by fifth-grade teacher Robert Meinberg, who wrote the basic script.
Students, through studying the Civil War then took the script and came up with cross-examination questions and additional lines.
Meinberg has organized a mock trial for the past four years, the first two at Johns Creek Elementary. But previous trials were against Goldilocks for crimes against the three bears.
“This is the first year we’ve done Sherman as the mock trial,” he said. “It’s more aligned with our curriculum.
“We cover the Civil War in the beginning of the [school] year, from August to October, so we … talk about the march through the city [of Atlanta]. It’s a big integral part of our curriculum, so this fits in very nicely.”
Fifth-grader Anna Lee Hoffman, who played the role of Freeslave said a lot of work went into the mock trial, but it was also fun.
“We learned about it in social studies and we would go to another room during the day and we’d practice our lines and talk about what the people did,” she said. “It’s really cool to do it in a real courtroom and see a real judge and act like it’s a real trial.”
Natalie Kandul said she was excited to dress up as Col. Robert Kelly for the trial. Getting to wear a costume and act out history made her remember more about the war.
“A lot of people tend to listen more for an activity than reading it in a book,” she said. “I thought it was just Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman that were the main people that led the war. But a lot of other people, like Colonel Jonathan Winston and Colonel Robert Kelly, had a part in it too.
“So it was like learning and having fun at the same time.”
The fifth-grade classes were divided into two groups. Bramblett oversaw one group’s trial, while Forsyth County Probate Court Judge Lynwood “Woody” Jordan Jr. presided over the other.
Both judges fielded questions about the legal system after their trials.
“I told the kids after the trial that we have three branches of government and I think the judicial branch is the least understood of the three,” Bramblett said. “I think it’s great that kids this age get this much involvement and hands-on learning about the judicial system.”
Meinberg said the students gained both a history lesson and insight into what it takes to conduct a fair trial.
“I’ve had a lot of students that have come back in years past that said, ‘I want to be an attorney now,’” he said. “Luckily none have said, ‘I want to be a criminal.’
“But I’ve had some that have really liked this process.”