April 22, 2007 — -- High school senior classes in America are famous for embracing tradition -- but Saturday night, at one Georgia high school, a long-standing tradition died and students rejoiced.
For the first time, Turner County High School in Ashburn, Ga., about 80 miles north of the Florida border, hosted a prom open to both black and white students.
Fifty-five percent of Ashburn's 4,000 residents are black. The other 45 percent are white. The ratio holds about the same for the high school's 456 students, and among the senior class the ratio of black and white students is almost even.
For as long as anyone can remember, the high school has not held an official school prom.
Instead, there have been two unofficial events -- a black prom and a white prom.
But this year, under the guidance of four elected senior-class officers -- two black, two white -- and a first-year high school principal, the school combined the previously segregated dances into a single prom in the school's newly built gymnasium.
The event, appropriately, was called the "Breakaway," as in breaking from tradition.
"Everybody's always said they wanted to but nobody went for it to get it done," said senior class president James Hall. "It just took some courage from the students to get it done."
Donations poured in from around the world, helping to pay for the night's tropical theme and contribute to the price of admission for those who couldn't afford it. After decades spent apart, students of all colors celebrated together.
"It wasn't just white people dancing with white people, black people dancing with black people," said Turner senior Amanda Alberson. "Color didn't matter, just like I hoped. We just had fun, had a blast."
For Turner principal Chad Stone, the event was many years in the making.
"We were aware that they always had separate proms here," said Stone. "We've always tried to have one prom for the students here, but they'd rather have their own."
Stone may have just taken over as principal this year, but he knows the landscape at Turner well, having served five years as a social studies teacher and four as an assistant principal.
When the four senior-class officers announced in September that they wanted to end the tradition of holding segregated proms, he said he was open to the idea.
The school's administration addresses the issue of a prom in the school's handbook, offering to provide financial support and a location for the event -- under two conditions: The class officers, and the larger student body, had to demonstrate a genuine support for the event, and they had to agree to a few reasonable prom policies.
After they agreed to the latter, it didn't take too much for the Class of 2007 to show Stone the shared sentiment.
"I just think this is a close-knit group of kids," Stone said. "Everybody here, white and black, this probably [is] as close knit a group as I've seen."
Stone couldn't point to one single characteristic that had made this class want to strike a different course, but he said parents had helped bring together the two sides who every day share classes, athletic fields and all the other experiences of high school in America. It's a sentiment that has spilled over to the younger students, he said.
"These are things that are going to be remembered as pretty special, and that's how we want to [be] remembered," Stone said. "We already go to school together -- let's start a tradition so that in 20 years from now, this is no big deal at all."