When yours truly was a senior in high school back in 1989, there were both black and white students at the senior prom.
We didn’t think anything of it – but it was central Illinois, and maybe that made a difference.
Fast forward to today, and here I am heading three hours down the highway from Atlanta to Wilcox County, Ga., where students there are holding their first integrated prom.
We are far from the city, and deep into the land of long, dry soybean fields with lonely tractors at their center. There are no stoplights. Every home I see looks weathered in that country way. And we’re about to pull into a long, gravel driveway to meet a few of the students who’ve decided it was time that black and white students share the same prom.
Wilcox County High is a small high school in the country. We tried to get the superintendant to agree to an interview and he declined. He was very nice about it, and seemed very supportive of the students putting on the integrated prom, but he was clearly negotiating politics.
Let me first say it’s not fair to paint these families with the same brush. Not all white families opposed the integrated prom. And not all black families supported it. But the struggle over a high school dance made it very clear to me that, in this part of the world, change is much slower in coming.
The separate dances here stretch all the way back to the ’60s and ’70s, after court-ordered desegregation. Schools across the South were forced to integrate classrooms, but refused to integrate the prom. In protest, the school got out of the prom business, leaving families to hold their own private dances – one for white students and another for everyone else.
The week before we visited, families of white students held their private dance, and two of the students I was about to meet sat outside, watched who went and felt their hearts sink.
Mareshia Rucker is African-American. Brandon Davis is her blue-eyed best friend who hopes to become a pilot.
“We just sat in the car and watched people we knew walk in, teachers and friends,” he said.
“I think you know when Martin Luther King marched and all of these things were happening as far as racial segregation, our town obviously didn’t get the memo,” Rucker added.
Davis was more upset.
“After everything we’ve been through 12 years – 13 for some of us – we can’t get together for one night just to dance?” he asked. “Just to spend our last, one of our last great memories together. I mean, it kind of hurt.”
So they doubled down. Ignored rumors that some parents would riot if they threw this prom. Ignored the students who ripped down their prom posters at school. And solicited help online from around the world.
They raised $15,000. A deejay drove up from Texas and worked for free. Photographer Maria Izaurralde drove up from Florida. A caterer in town donated the food. And on a sunny evening in April, Wilcox County’s first integrated prom was born.
White, black and Latino students walked out of stretch limos hand in hand. There was a red carpet. And nearly every other young lady was wearing a tiara.
The students weren’t alone. This was a local event, with news cameras, parents, school board members and local dignitaries. People were asking Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal for his comment. And, he told ABC News, he supported the integrated prom.
At the end of the night, it was still a dance. And the students partied into the wee hours, and had a wonderful high school memory. Their school district now says next year may be different: The school might throw one integrated prom.
Change coming slowly, but coming.