Update Friday: Better Georgia, a self-described progressive advocacy group, asked Gov. Nathan Deal to take a public stand supporting the efforts of four Wilcox County High School seniors to hold an integrated prom in a community where segregated private proms have been the tradition.
The group was disappointed with his response to its request, which addressed who was asking — Better Georgia — rather than the issue of the prom itself.
It sent out this statement today:
According to a report from Macon’s largest television station, 13 WMAZ, the governor’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Deal “won’t take sides” because “this is a leftist front group for the state Democratic party and we’re not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt.”
Better Georgia is an independent, non-partisan organization and is not affiliated with any political party. The progressive advocacy group has challenged all Georgia elected officials to publicly support the students of Wilcox County who are breaking with tradition to host the school’s first integrated prom.
“This is an important moment for Georgia’s elected leaders, including Gov. Deal, our top official, to stand up and tell the nation that Georgia doesn’t approve of ‘separate-but-equal’ proms,’ that we’ve moved beyond the 50s, 60s and 70s,” said Bryan Long, executive director of Better Georgia. Elected officials from both major political parties have responded to Better Georgia’s request to support the students.
But the governor’s spokesman says his comments were taken out of context and he never said Deal was taking sides. In reference to Wilcox proms, Robinson issued this statement to the AJC, “Gov. Deal is focused on reviewing the legislation that was passed in the legislative session and bringing jobs to Georgia. In the Wilcox County case, the governor expects and trusts that local leaders will find a long-term solution that protects the equal rights of all students, regardless of race or ethnic background.”
Back to my original post:
Veteran educator Henry Walding used to joke that if he ever became a high school principal, he would do away with prom.
Now principal of Montgomery County High School in Mount Vernon, Walding will spend Saturday night chaperoning his school’s first official prom in nearly a half century.
And the prom is integrated, which wasn’t always the case in this small southeast Georgia district where white and black students once attended separate proms.
In the aftermath of 1970s-era integration, many small-town Southern white parents didn’t want race mixing at social events, while administrators feared proms would exacerbate tensions around the closing and merging of schools.
Montgomery is among the school districts in the South where proms went from school-based functions to segregated private affairs, held off campus without any school funds
For the most part, these apartheid proms are gone. But not everywhere.
Wilcox County High School in the South Georgia town of Rochelle, 20 miles from Cordele, finds itself in the unflattering eye of a social media storm after reports of its segregated proms hit the newspapers, TV stations and Facebook. Four girls in the senior class, best friends since fourth grade, launched a Facebook page to promote an integrated prom and have won international applause and donations. The April 27 prom is now free to Wilcox High seniors and has been expanded to 10th graders as well.
At a Wilcox school board meeting Tuesday, NAACP State President Edward DuBose urged board members to support the teens and embrace their effort to end segregated proms. And the Wilcox County High School Leadership Team is meeting today to consider a school-sponsored prom next year.
The south Georgia school system is coping with the massive media attention and correcting a few misconceptions. Namely, that it sponsors or condones these historic black and white proms.
In a statement, Wilcox Schools Superintendent Steven Smith said, “When the ladies approached the Wilcox County Board of Education and me about hosting an integrated prom, we not only applauded their idea, but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and non-discriminatory.
“I fully support these ladies and I consider it an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way. I understand there to be many issues surrounding these parties that have nothing to do with skin color. Skin color seems to be a much larger issue for the adults than the students, and my prayer is that this effort will be a huge step toward reconciling the wrongs of the past.”
In the last few years, two Georgia counties near Wilcox have ended segregated proms.
Turner County High School holds its seventh school-based prom this weekend, and, for the first time, there are no private proms in competition. The school prom has become the only destination for teenagers in Ashburn, Ga.
“I will tell you that it has not been an easy road,” said Turner Superintendent Ray Jordan. “Old habits and traditions die hard and, hopefully, we are reaching stage where we are building new traditions.”
Twice, Turner High has had to cancel school proms because students showed no interest, preferring to organize and attend private proms. And it was not just white students. One year, a black family organized a private prom that drew students away from the school prom.
“In 2010, we had a very similar situation,” said Jordan. “We were planning a prom and started selling tickets. But it got down to the time to sign the contracts for the music and such and we had only sold three or four tickets. So, we canceled prom that year.”
But a new principal came on board and redoubled efforts to spur student interest in a school prom and participation has been rising. With around 190 students in the junior and senior classes, the school sold 153 tickets to Saturday’s prom in Tifton.
“For the first time since we began this journey, there are no private parties that compete with the prom,” said Jordan.
A Turner high school graduate himself, Jordan attended a segregated prom in 1977.
“That’s all we knew growing up. That was just what they had always done. My first experience with a true school-sponsored prom was in the spring of 1980 when I was a teacher at Tift County High School and we had a school prom,” he said
Now, Jordan sees a school prom as a means of unifying students. “We are hoping to build a culture where this is the tradition now, where prom is a time to celebrate their high school experience with the young people they have been with since kindergarten.”
Students in Montgomery County led the effort to integrate their prom three years ago. Two years into the principal’s job at Montgomery High, Walding said, “The prom is now fully integrated. I donated $250 each year out of my own pocket to help support the prom. I would not do that unless it was an integrated prom.”
But the proms remained private until now. When students came to him this year and asked to raise money at the school for their prom, Walding agreed with a proviso: the prom become school-sponsored and prom-goers agree to abide by more stringent rules than parents may have imposed. In the past, Walding said a seventh grader went to a prom. That will not happen Saturday, he said.
“I always said if I were a high school principal and could do away with the prom, I would,” he said. “But I am pleased with the support that this prom has received and the way it developed. This is a wonderful group of kids.”
Many rural areas have held private segregated proms for so long that they are treated as tradition, said Montgomery County Superintendent Randy Rodgers. “In the late 60s and early 70s, districts discontinued proms because they felt like the proms were an opportunity for racial unrest,” he said.
One reason the proms remained private all these many decades may have been that districts feared the liability of resuming control of the events, he said.
“With a lawyer on every corner so to speak, there is always the possibility of legal action and some exposure of the schools if children were drinking and there were accidents,” said Rodgers. I think there could be an argument that you lessen your exposure if you don’t involve yourself in proms.”
But Rodgers believes that “proms should be part of high school life. In Montgomery County, we have worked hard to get these kids to support a school prom. “
And it involved some cajoling, Rodgers said. The former principal of Montgomery High School offered a school-based prom to students in 2010, but the teens “did not want to be affiliated with the school because of the higher requirements of behavior. Parents have a tendency to overlook many things that a schoolteacher can’t.”
He understands that some school administrators contend that prom falls low on the list of priorities, given the budget deficits and the pressure to raise student performance. But Rodgers said a school-sponsored prom can build morale and improve the school climate.
His advice to friend and fellow school chief Steven Smith in Wilcox County: “Do the right thing and keep the children in the center of everything you do and things will take care of themselves.”
The national spotlight on the Wilcox student campaign to integrate the prom is a positive, said Rodgers, “as it will eventually heighten the awareness of everyone and it will become more and more accepted.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog