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ABBEVILLE, Ga. — Mareshia Rucker watched in frustration last weekend as
several dozen classmates in tuxedos and gowns walked into an Art Deco
theater for her high school’s “white prom.”
Mareshia Rucker, left, and Stephanie Sinnott helped
put on a barbecue plate sale in Abbeville, Ga., to raise money for the
Like all black students at Wilcox County High School, she was not
invited. The rural county in central Georgia is one of the last pockets
in the country with racially segregated proms.
“These are people I see in class every day,” said Ms. Rucker, a senior,
who hid in a parked car outside the prom. “What’s wrong with dancing
with me, just because I have more pigment?”
But this weekend, after decades of separate proms for white students and
black students, Wilcox County will have its first integrated prom.
Organized by students, it is open to all, at a ballroom in nearby
Cordele. Nearly half of the school’s 380 students have registered, with
roughly equal numbers of black students and white students.
A group of four female students — two black and two white — came up with
the idea, and they have received an outpouring of support from across
the country. Their Facebook group has 24,000 fans, and it has raised enough in donations to rent a ballroom and buy food and gift bags for every couple.
Disc jockeys from Texas and Atlanta volunteered to play music, a
motivational speaker from Florida is delivering a speech, and
photographers from New York and Savannah are taking pictures, all
without cost. In response, the Wilcox County school board plans to vote
this spring on making future proms official school events, which would
prohibit racial segregation.
Although events sponsored by the public schools cannot issue invitations
on the basis of race, the proms had been organized since 1971, when the
schools were desegregated, as private, invitation-only events,
sponsored by parents, not the school.
“Let’s face it: It’s 2013. Why are we even having this conversation?”
asked Steven Smith, the schools superintendent. “It became an
embarrassment long ago.”
Leaders of the Georgia N.A.A.C.P. have called for the state to ban
segregated proms. And the all-white prom has been ridiculed on social
But locally, the separate proms have defenders. White residents said
members of the two races had different tastes in music and dancing, and
different traditions: the junior class plans the white prom, and the
senior class plans the black prom.
Wayne McGuinty, a furniture store owner and City Council member, who is
white, said he had donated to fund-raising events for both proms in past
years and saw no problem with separate proms. They do not reflect
racism, he said, but simply different traditions and tastes. When he was
a senior in high school, in the 1970s, he said, there were separate
proms for those who liked rock music and country music.
“This whole issue has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “Nobody
had a problem with having two proms until it got all this publicity.”
Parents who organized the white prom declined to comment, as did students who attended.
Across the South, segregated proms have gradually faded away. In 2008,
Charleston, Miss., held its first mixed-race prom after the actor Morgan
Freeman, who grew up there, offered to pay for the event. In 2010,
Montgomery County, Ga., stopped its segregated proms after they were
featured in an article in The New York Times Magazine.
Paul Saltzman, who directed a film about Charleston’s desegregation,
“Prom Night in Mississippi,” said he did not know of any other proms
that were still segregated. He praised Wilcox County students for
breaking with tradition.
“Young people see that the rest of the world doesn’t do things this
way,” he said. “It’s hard to stick your neck out when you’re up against
In Wilcox County, where 62 percent of the people are white and 35
percent are black, the effort to integrate the prom has grown far beyond
the four students: Ms. Rucker, Stephanie Sinnott, Keela Bloodworth and
Quanesha Wallace. Many others have volunteered, selling barbecue chicken
to raise money and stuffing gift bags.
“The adults should have done this many, many moons ago, but it had to be the kids,” said Ms. Rucker’s mother, Toni.
Mr. Smith, the superintendent, wrote a statement of support for the
integrated prom, saying he considered it “an embarrassment to our
schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in
After the prom, the school will conduct a survey of students, and then a
group of teachers and administrators will recommend a solution. Mr.
Smith said he expected that the school would run the prom next year and
open it to all students.
“I don’t even like to say ‘integrated’ prom,” he said. “I hope we’ll be
announcing soon that there’s just one prom. The prom.”