For as long as anyone can remember, Wilcox County High School in rural Georgia has held separate, segregated proms for its white students and its black students. This year, four high school seniors are raising money to host the first integrated prom in their county's history.
"We're embarrassed, it's embarrassing," Stephanie Sinnot, Keela Bloodworth, Mareshia Rucker and Quanesha Wallace said in an interview with WSAV News.
The girls, who have been friends since elementary school, are part of a student group that has organized a campaign to fund and publicize the Integrated Prom.
"We realize were making history. Because this has never happened before. So for something like this to come about where we can make a difference or change, it's gonna be valuable to the community. It's really exciting," Mareshia Rucker told WALB News.
Prom isn't the only high school event that Wilcox County High divides along racial lines. Homecoming Quanesha was named homecoming queen, but there were still two separate dances. The Wilcox homecoming queen was not invited to the white dance and she and the homecoming king took separate pictures for the school yearbook.
"I felt like there had to be a change," Quanesha Wallace told WSAV News. "For me to be a black person and the king to be a white person, I felt like why can't we come together?"
Segregated proms still happen, writes Atlanta Journal Constitution education correspondent Maureen Downey, "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."
"It's integration in the form of interracial dating that many Wilcox County adults find objectionable. So they shy from events thought to encourage it—events such as integrated proms," Cheree Franco writes in her 2009 thesis studying Wilcox County's segregated prom tradition.
In her in-depth look at the county's historic opposition to integrated proms, which was only written four years ago, Franco interviews Amber Phillips, a white junior girl at Wilcox High School who was kicked out of her house when her parents learned that she was dating one of her best male friends, who happened to be black. She was only allowed to move back home after she promised never to speak to the boy again.
"People still talk about me and no guy from school will date me. Many guys still call me 'N-lover' to my face. I don't regret it, but I wouldn't do it again. I learned my lesson," Phillips told Franco.
Now, in 2013, some of the students at Wilcox High School don't want to end the practice of segregated dances. "I put up posters for the "Integrated Prom" and we've had people ripping them down at the school," Keela Bloodworth told WSAV.
WALB News reports that 50 students have bought tickets to the prom so far.
The students and their parents plan to hold fundraisers every weekend until the week before prom, which is scheduled for April 27th.
"We are all friends," said Stephanie Sinnot. "That's just kind of not right that we can't go to prom together."
"If we don't change it nobody else will," said Keela Bloodworth.
NBC41 interviewed the student organizers of Integrated Prom 2013:
UPDATE: The Wilcox County School District has issued a statement saying that the high school will explore holding a school-sponsored integrated prom in 2014.
From the statement posted on the district's web site:
A small-town school system with caring teachers, WCS is a great place to learn. Teachers know their students, the parents, and the families in Wilcox County. Students thrive in an atmosphere of compassion, trust, and rising expectations. The school system's motto is: "I Believe in You," and in every teacher's classroom a poster signed by the teacher reinforces this fact daily..
WCHS is much like any other high school, where the homecoming king and queen are chosen by popular vote (and are allowed to have their picture made together, despite published reports to the contrary!). Most discipline problems relate to tardies and matters of the heart, and students see skin color through their parents' eyes.
Recently the high school has received some negative publicity for hosting segregated proms, but that is simply not true. The high school does not host a prom at all, and groups of students who host private parties have referred to the parties as their proms. The school sytem has no influence over private parties, but we are encouraged by recent events.
Earlier in this school year, a group of ladies approached the Wilcox County Board of Education and the Superintendent to discuss their plans for hosting an "integrated prom." The Board and Superintendent not only applauded the idea, but passed a resolution requesting that all activities involving WCS students be inclusive and non-discriminatory.
We support the efforts of these ladies, and we praise their efforts to bring our students together.
I am pleased to report that WCHS Principal Chad Davis has stated that his Leadership Team will place the 2014 Prom on its agenda for its next meeting.
Instead of attacking our school system, its employees, and our community, we ask for your support and prayers as we seek to right the wrongs of the past and be the adults our children look up to.
With less than 30 school days left in this school year, our teachers and staff will be concentrating on helping our students prepare for state standardized tests. We congratulate our Class of 2013, and we are doing our best to make sure they are fully prepared for college and/or a career.