Integrating the Prom . . . in 2013

It isn’t often that a high school prom in a Deep Southern small town makes the national news. But if you’re in Cordele, Georgia – which is a short drive due south of Macon; the city’s website proclaims it to be the “Watermelon Capitol of the World” – and you’re holding that town’s first ever racially integrated prom . . . in 2013, then you’ll see the event covered by not only your local newspaper the Cordele Dispatch, but also by The New York Times and CNN Headline News. (To skip all that pesky reading, and watch a brief TV news version from NBC News’s The Grio, click here.)

Though discussions have apparently been going on for a while, earlier this month, on April 9, the Cordele Dispatch ran the story, “Wilcox students push for integrated prom,” explaining the following:

All four [students] are seniors at Wilcox County High School; Stephanie and Keela are white and Mareshia and Quanesha are black. They say they are embarassed that students continue to hold segregated dances. It is an issue that is not limited to prom but homecoming as well.

The mildly sordid history of the high school’s segregated dances is outlined briefly in the article. There had typically been two formal dances for each occasion, one for white students and one for black, which didn’t always work out well:

According to [one of the seniors] Bloodworth, a bi-racial student attempted to attend the “white” prom last year and was turned away.

As one example of the problems inherent in trying to keep this practice going in the twenty-first century, the students at Wilcox County High School recently elected an African-American homecoming queen and a white homecoming king—  the two then took separate pictures for the yearbook. Separate pictures! So a small group of students began proposing that the segregated practice end.

The students did approach members of the board of education on the matter, and the board offered a resolution commending the students for organizing an integrated prom that will allow all students to attend.

However, in Wilcox County, Georgia, the prom isn’t handled as a school-sponsored event; it happens off-campus and does not use school funds. Parents and community members handle the arrangements. So it was up to the community to change an outdated practice. Some people were on the side of change, but of course, everyone wasn’t. Some students in the school were tearing down posters for the “Integrated Prom,” and some locals cited differing musical preferences as reasons to have separate events.  However, diligence and effort – and twenty-first century thinking – paid off. On Saturday, April 27, the school held its first ever integrated prom!

The following Sunday morning, I was sitting around, drinking coffee, with Headline News playing in the background as I tried to wake up. My ears perked up when the weekend anchor read off a lead about a school holding its first ever integrated prom. “That’s got to be in the South . . . there’s no way it’s not,” I said out loud. I hadn’t heard about this story before. I waited around to see it, and I was right: Cordele, Georgia. No clue where that is but I can go look it up . . . 

Even though this particular situation seems to have worked out for the best pretty quickly and without incident, the Deep South is well-known for its resistance to change, but especially so when it comes to how racial issues are handled for schools. When the 1954 Brown v. Board decision was handed down, some Southern extremists proposed a variety of “solutions” to the “problem” of integration. For example, historian Wayne Flynt wrote in Alabama: History of a Deep South State:

A law the following year [1956] allowed a local school board to close any school faced with integration and denied that the state had any responsibility to provide public education at all. (547)

Deep Southern schools began the slow and sometimes violent process of integrating throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with some memorable historical events during that process, including the Little Rock Nine. The federally mandated integration of Southern schools was then accompanied by localized non-governmental (social) re-segregation through a variety of methods, such as the creation of so-called “white academies” and the incorporation of new school districts through “white flight.” This example of proms for separate races falls squarely into that tradition; the NYT article “A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step up” explains how:

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.

Legally, schools may have integrated, but the larger truth is that racial problems in Southern schools never really went away. Notice the year that these invitation-only proms began.

This issue of race and the prom also made national news back in the 1990s in Wedowee, Alabama. In 1994, high school principal Hulond Humphries incited outrage when he called then-seventeen-year-old Revonda Bowen a “mistake.” Humphries was attempting to prevent interracial couples from attending prom, which led the mixed-race Bowen to ask questions about where she fit into that equation. (To read an August 1994 New York Times treatment, click here.)

More recently, though not related to a prom, racial tensions flared up in a small town in Louisiana in a situation that is now referred to simply as the “Jena Six.” In 2007, a group of African-American boys were arrested, tried and convicted for crimes related to a fight at school, which was prompted by the hanging of nooses in a tree on school grounds where white students typically congregated. The 2008 article from The Atlantic, “The Truth about Jena,” explains the difficult intricacies of the case, its defendants, and the polarizing nature of the discourse surrounding the situation.

Certainly, these incidents aren’t the only racial episodes in high schools in the Deep South over the last twenty years, but they both received significant national coverage prompted by widespread outrage over blatant racism. As for this prom in Georgia, I was sorry to hear that in 2013, almost sixty years after Brown v. Board and almost twenty years after the race-and-prom debate in Wedowee, some small town in Georgia was still segregating its young people. It makes no difference to me whether the segregation was officially sanctioned or de facto; these high school seniors did the right thing by confronting an obvious problem and calling for it to end. Congratulations to them and to their community!

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