The concept of segregated proms in the South shocked people when the AJC and other newspapers wrote about it a few years back. The first question from readers was how this could still be happening.
It happens because the proms are not officially school events, although a great deal of promoting and planning by students occurs within schools. Since the proms are private parties held off campus without any school funds, schools disavow any control over the events, which are organized by parents and students and reflect historic and lingering racial divides.
In the news this week is an effort by students in Wilcox County High School to finally end the tradition there of segregated proms. Homecoming dances are also segregated there.
The teens are trying to raise money for an “Integrated Prom,” which would be the first ever in the rural Georgia county. They began a Facebook page yesterday to garner support. When I began this blog this morning, they had 300 “Likes.” They now have 5,000 at 4:45 p.m. and people are donating to their cause from around the world and cheering them on. This story is being spread worldwide through media and social media.
Here is a wonderful piece of journalism about earlier efforts to unify the prom. (Long piece for those who want to get a deeper understanding of why this goes on.)
In some places, schools have attempted to stop separate proms by hosting an official prom, but the event failed to gain traction with the students. The challenge is making the school prom a must-attend event, a party so good that no one would want to miss it.
But the schools are stymied on funding.
Clearly, some star power would help. The Wilcox students could use a teen idol willing to make an appearance at their prom and change history in the process. Or make a large donation. The kids are holding a chicken dinner fundraiser to raise money for the prom.
When news came out in 2009 about separate black and white proms in Montgomery County in Georgia, former GOP legislator Matt Towery was outraged. In a piece for the AJC, Towery, who is CEO of the national polling firm Insider Advantage, wrote:
While it might be impossible to prevent private parties — indeed, I would fight for the right for individuals to invite whomever they wish to their own events — there is still plenty that could be done to end this practice in Montgomery County, or anywhere else it might happen.
Don’t tell me that part of the “organization” of these private proms doesn’t occur on campus. Such activity should be disallowed. Not on my dime or on that of millions of other taxpayers. Don’t tell me the segregated proms don’t use the name of Montgomery High School when they create invitations or make announcements for these events. The use of a “brand name” paid for with tax dollars that promotes a “separate but equal” policy in this day and age should be forbidden.
And don’t tell me the county’s school officials can’t attempt to do what most schools in America do — help arrange a school prom that every student can attend. We have elected an African-American president of our nation, but a school system in a rural county that is in no way representative of the state of which it’s a part wants to keep things like they were in 1960. Surely Montgomery County can join the 21st century.
WGXA/NewsCentral in Macon reported this week on the effort by the Wilcox students to create one integrated prom: This link has a good TV report on the student effort that you ought to watch.
Here is an excerpt of the WGXA TV story:
“We’re embarrassed, it’s embarrassing,” exclaimed Stephanie Sinnot, Mareshia Rucker, Quanesha Wallace, and Keela Bloodworth.The group has been friends since the 4th grade and they say they do everything together, except prom night.
“We are all friends,” said Stephanie. “That’s just kind of not right that we can’t go to prom together.”
Stephanie and Keela are white and Mareshia and Quanesha are black. They’re seniors at Wilcox County High School, a school that has never held an integrated prom during its existence. “There’s a white prom and there’s an integrated prom,” said Keela.
The rule is strictly enforced, any race other than Caucasian wouldn’t dare to attend the white prom. “They would probably have the police come out there and escort them off the premises,” said Keela.
That was the case just last year as a biracial student was turned away by police. It’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember and it doesn’t stop at prom. Homecoming is also segregated. Normally, there would be a court for each race, but for the first time the school decided to elect only one homecoming court, Quanesha won.
But there were still two separate dances.
“I felt like there had to be a change,” said Quanesha. “For me to be a black person and the king to be a white person, I felt like why can’t we come together.”
Quanesha wasn’t invited to the white homecoming. In fact, the pair took separate pictures for the school yearbook. “When people around here are set in their ways, they are not to adamant to change,” said Marishia.
So the girls are taking matters into their own hands. “If we don’t change it nobody else will,” said Keela. They’re part of a group of students organizing a prom for everyone to attend, called the “Integrated Prom,” but everyone is not fond of the idea. “I put up posters for the “Integrated Prom” and we’ve had people ripping them down at the school,” said Keela.
The group says they will continue to make progress even though there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to change. “We need to stick with the tradition,” Quanesha said mockingly. “This is a traditional thing we don’t need to change and stuff like that, but why? No one can answer my question.
There will still be two proms this year. Neither proms are financed by or allowed to take place at Wilcox County High School. The students said that when they pushed for one prom, the school offered a resolution to permit an integrated prom that would allow all students to attend but not stop segregated proms.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog