*I wrote this story in April of 2009. In 2014, Wilcox County students finally attended a truly integrated prom.
United We Stand, Divided We Dance: Wilcox County Proms in Black and White
The classrooms at Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Georgia stand empty on a cool, sunny Thursday morning. Whitney Turner, a petite junior with a headful of tiny braids, chocolate skin and wide-set expressive eyes, shifts her weight and studies her feet. Her stiletto heels sink in the soft earth. She’s sandwiched between her identical twin Brittney and their friend Regan Beale. When Whitney turns to survey the crowd, Beale’s long blond hair brushes her cheek. The whole school, black and white, has turned out. Everyone loved Jay McDuffie.
Brittney clings to Whitney and sniffs, swiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Beale stares stoically ahead, yanking at the hem of her baby-doll dress as Britt Peavy, pastor of Pitts Church of God, says, “Jay was always laughing and joking. He wouldn’t want y’all to mope around.”
On cue, Michael McDuffie and Mac McKinney, both 19, crank their engines and, with their trucks still in park, slam on the gas. The quick, satisfying bursts are their own eulogy to the lean, blue-eyed 17-year-old who had been Michael’s brother and McKinney’s best friend—the boy who lived in his John Deere hoodie, loved souped-up trucks and massive parties and four days ago, slammed his Chevy into a tree at 80 mph, ending his life on Rochelle’s infamous S-curves.
As the final roar descends into silence, punctuated by muffled weeping, Whitney thinks about Jay’s father, Police Chief Michael McDuffie. An hour ago in the high school gym, he had begged his son’s peers—“Please slow down.” February 8, 2009, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Chief McDuffie had discovered his son’s mangled body.
“There were just as many blacks as whites at that funeral,” Jay McDuffie’s white classmate John Wilson Gordon recalls, nearly two weeks later. With all the earnestness of a soon-to-be-man, he steadies his gaze and says gravely, “Around here, we unite when it comes to that stuff.”
His black classmate, Tiffany Jones agrees. “The whole school was at that funeral. I went to the visitation, the gravesite, everything. Jay was my boy.”
Whitney Turner remembers Jay as one of her closest friends—“and he was the first white boy I ever made out with,” she adds solemnly.
“We don’t have a lot of prejudice at our school. We’re all friends,” Gordon explains. “Rochelle’s a pretty good place to live, unless you want to move a big-time career forward. There’s nothing here for that.” In order to play college golf and major in bio-medical engineering, Gordon knows that he’ll have to go several hours from his hometown, which lies 80 miles south of Macon.
“After college I think I’ll come back here and raise a family,” says his friend Tyler McWhorter, a WCHS football player and, he hopes, a future state trooper.
“It’s a great place for a family,” Gordon concurs, extolling the standard virtues of a town whose population—1,318—wouldn’t even fill the left-field bleachers of the new Mets stadium. (More than half the residents of Rochelle—53 percent—are African-American; 46 percent are white and 2 percent, Latino). “Everybody knows everybody. If I need something, I know where I can get it. That’s probably the best thing about living here.”
“During football season, everybody’s at the field. Sports are big here. In this town, we come together a lot,” McWhorter adds.
But coming together takes some doing for the black and white people of Rochelle. Railroad tracks divide a stretch of neat clapboard houses on the south side of town from a northern section where the houses are substantially smaller. White families—who earn an average annual income of $44,265—live south of the tracks. Black families—whose average annual income is barely a third of that at $14,461—live to the north. Black kids are no strangers to the white side of town, if only because WCHS, a one-story brick building with bright blue trim, is located there. For white kids it’s a different story, at least as Morgan Pope, 2008’s WCHS homecoming queen, tells it. Pope never crosses the tracks to the black part of town.
“When the white kids want drugs, that’s where they go,” she warns. “It’s dangerous over there.”
Unite as they may around sports and funerals, WCHS students mirror the town’s geographical division. In class black kids sit up front, white kids in back. Black kids lunch inside, white kids have the yard. And every April, black kids attend one prom, white kids another.
Prom is a fraught project in Rochelle, perhaps the only town left in the South that has never offered its high school seniors a racially integrated option. WCHS stays out of the prom business altogether, letting parents organize events for their kids. And they do—separately.
“It would be fun to have prom together. It would be.” John Wilson Gordon hesitates, casting a sidelong glance at Tyler McWhorter. The duo has traded Friday’s final class for their favorite underage lounge—the tailgate of McWhorter’s antique truck. Currently they’re parked in Gordon’s front yard, directly across the street from the high school. “But we just have never…I mean, that’s how they’ve always done it. Juniors this year aren’t going to break tradition,” he finishes.
“I think it’d be great,” McWhorter says enthusiastically.
He offers the comparison of the annual ROTC dance, usually held at the Rochelle Ag Center. All ROTC students are required to attend. “Military Ball is mixed, and everybody has a blast. But,” he adds with a shrug, “people around here aren’t into change.”
“I just hope we have a prom,” Gordon mutters, shuffling a foot in the sparse February grass. “Jay was planning it.” Thus far the planning committee has held a single meeting, in Jay McDuffie’s living room.
McWhorter contemplates the matter. “One reason that prom’s been segregated is, the parents do it for their kids, and they don’t really know any other race’s kids. The parents want their kids to hang out with the kids that they know. That’s the only reason I can see,” he says slowly.
The next evening over a Mexican dinner, a couple of WCHS girls draw a similar conclusion. Regan Beale scoops queso onto a corn chip and explains that her friends “aren’t racist, they’d just rather things be a certain way. They’d rather just have white people hang out with white people.”
“It’s the white people, the way they were raised, I guess,” Whitney Turner says, squirming uncomfortably on Los Comparde’s vinyl booth. The girls have come to nearby Cordele seeking Saturday night action. “I think it’s the white parents. They just don’t want their kids around blacks—well, I don’t think that, because they go to school together, so I don’t really know. I guess they think something will happen or people will talk about them or something.” Except for her sister, all of Whitney’s friends are white.
“It’s not the black people that don’t want prom together,” Tiffany Jones argues adamantly. “It should be all of the classmates getting together and having fun. That’s what prom is.”
Jones and other African-American classmates have gathered at the Rochelle Community Center. As late afternoon sun pours through large windows, they discuss their prom predicament.
“People get along. There’s not like a big race problem,” junior Symone Morehead asserts.
“Some white people prefer segregation. John Wayne told me specifically, ‘I’m good with the segregation,’” their friend Iesha Faison says.
“But why?” Jones wants to know.
“He doesn’t know why, he just likes segregated,” Faison replies.
None of them can say with certainty, but she and her friends have their theories.
“I always thought it was because of the music,” Morehead offers. “White people don’t want to hear what we want to hear.”
Faison shakes her head, her pink earrings jiggling vigorously. “Half the white kids at our school got Gucci Mane on their MySpace page. It’s the same music,” she tells Morehead.
“And half of them don’t,” Morehead retorts.
“I listen to country music. And that’s all she listens to,” Faison says, pointing to her mother, Gwen Turner. Sitting a table over, Turner attempts to distance herself from the kids’ discussion, but sometimes the force of her opinions overrides her discipline.
“It’s because the school doesn’t sponsor prom, and the white people have alcohol at theirs and we don’t,” Faison announces decidedly.
Rusheena Boone, a soft-spoken senior with an unabashed enthusiasm for punk-rock, says, “People are stuck in their old ways. They’re so traditional, they just don’t want to make the effort to change.”
Gwen Turner can’t help herself. “Amen sister!” she affirms, tossing her arms heavenward.
Every community has a sense of tradition, but in a small, rural community, tradition has a higher premium. Rural towns lack the influx of new inhabitants, industries and entertainment options that constantly renew more urban locales. The political and economic marginalization of these areas may further buttress tradition as a unifying force. In the South, the value of tradition is compounded by a nearly 150-year-old economic blow—the (white) South has never been able to recover its antebellum wealth—resulting in what historian Susan Cahn explains as “a sense of regional distinction rooted in the claim to a glorious past and a separate, distinctly superior culture.”
But not all of what contemporary southerners consider “tradition” is accurately labeled. Evoking the pre-eminent southern scholar C. Vann Woodward, Mississippi State University professor Jason Phillips describes segregation as “a fairly recent institution that was…forced, legal and extralegal.”
In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Woodward traces the ideological roots of segregation to slavery, but states that “the very nature of the institution made separation of the races impractical” and “encouraged a degree of intimacy…unequaled and often held distasteful in other parts of the country.”
Segregation came into play decades after emancipation, as a means through which white southerners could deter future economic and social competition from freed slaves. Technically segregation is not a “southern tradition” but an imported construct, already used throughout the north by the time it arrived below the Mason-Dixon line.
In Rochelle “tradition” comes down to specifics: livelihood (strawberries, cotton and peanuts), recreation (hunting, 4-H, high school sports and riding dirt roads) and systems of social privilege (the white men get the breaks). Both history and human nature indicate that those who benefit from tradition rarely hustle for change.
At Pitts Church of God, both Pastor Peavy and the majority of his parishioners are white, but even so, Pitts has the distinction of being one of the few local congregations that is somewhat racially mixed. Occasionally Peavy finds himself faced with ostracized teenage girls, dragged into his office by fearful and baffled parents who want to know, why won’t their white daughter date somebody’s white son?
“Race, politics and religion are issues that people can’t approach objectively. People act out of emotion. They can’t even verbalize why they act as they do, because when you speak to a person’s race or culture, you’re not just speaking about things. You threaten a person’s identity, and they’re going to respond passionately,” he says.
“What’s the solution?” he leans back in his leather chair, entirely comfortable in his Sunday suit. “Is it for us to all lay down our culture and become some other culture? I don’t think so. When you were a kid, did you ever finger-paint and mix all the colors together? You’ve just got a mess.”
Peavy accentuates his speech with enthusiastic gestures; at one point his elbow nearly collides with a framed photograph of his pretty blond wife and their young son and daughter. He defines his parishioners’ sense of segregation as a “moral issue,” but not in the commonly recognized logic that segregation is inherently immoral. 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. For his part, Peavy finds interracial relationships immoral only from an “honor thy parents” vantage because, “right or wrong, parents are still parents.” Lately he’s noticed a widening gulf between parents and their teens. In the last generation, a change has seeped into Wilcox County. The kids experience much more of what he calls “the overlap of cultures” than their folks ever did, and it’s making parents—especially the white parents—nervous.
“With the popularity of hip-hop and R& B, you’ve got kids that grew up on the back of a John Deere tractor dressing and using language like they’re from A-T-L. You could actually have a white middle-class kid who identifies with one of his black classmates more than he does his white middle-class family,” he expounds.
Peavy genuinely believes that “the issue becomes cultural,” but he uses the term gingerly. “I guess a person could replace the word race with culture and still be a racist,” he continues, “but…there is a vastly different culture in the South between Caucasians and African-Americans and Hispanics. Those cultures are pronounced cultures.”
He glances at his watch—almost time for evening service. As he rises to go, he says, “We know racism is morally and ethically wrong, but that doesn’t mean the answers are readily apparent.”
Exactly two weeks after Jay’s McDuffie’s death, Whitney and Brittney Turner sprawl at opposite ends of the living room couch, dividing their attention between their mother, Hazel Holmes, and the TV screen, where 2008’s remake of the 1980 horror flick Prom Night plays. It’s late Sunday evening. The room is harshly lit by fluorescent bulbs and a chair has been imported from the kitchen. Holmes plunks down an 11-year-old family friend and skillfully begins to plait the little girl’s hair. Another TV buzzes behind a closed door, and a steady stream of cousins and siblings pass through, heading to the kitchen or the adjoining bedroom.
Brittney tosses the remote in Whitney’s direction. “Sometimes we ask our white friends how their parents would feel about them going to prom with us. They say they don’t have a problem with it, but they know their parents would have a problem,” she discloses.
“I think most of our generation, if they weren’t raised around here, they would stand up and say that they want prom together. A lot of my friends say they’re not going to raise their kids how they were raised, to not like black boys and stuff,” Whitney chimes.
Brittney disagrees, referencing a close friend who she suspects will raise overtly prejudiced children. Following McDuffie’s death, this friend has taken over as head of the white prom committee.
Whitney shrugs, “Yeah, maybe so.” She glances at the TV, where a white girl in a prom dress tears through the halls of a luxury hotel, chased by her teacher, a white man who has already murdered her family and friends. Suddenly disheartened, Whitney shrinks deeper into the couch, adding, “It’s some of the most ‘Christian’ people, too.”
Last year Whitney temporarily lived with a white family and attended Union Baptist Church in downtown Rochelle. “They started having meetings just because I was coming,” she recalls. “And the pastor said, if I couldn’t come to that church, he was leaving, because anyone should be able to come hear the Word of God.”
Holmes puts a stern hand on her hip, frowning at her daughter’s story. “That’s how it is in Rochelle. When I was in school a black boy wanted to take a white girl to prom. That whole straight week, it was nothing but a fuss. The white people think a black boy’s going to come broke and with a record, but you know what? You can’t judge that black boy. There’s a lot of black people around here walking a straight line, and there’s some white boys that’ll come broke and with a record.”
Pastor Peavy is opinionated and unabashed. “Prom is just another excuse to get drunk and get laid,” he says forcefully. But sociologist Amy Best sees prom in a deeper context. In her book Prom Night, she defines prom as a “locally negotiated…middle class ritual…central to kids’ understanding of politics and struggle, culture and context, school and identity.” Historically, prom “upheld a normative sexual and social order” through “the advance of a program that reigned in students’ emerging and increasingly public sexualities,” she writes.
Prom evolved out of a custom that seems inadvertently chaste by today’s standards. A courting ritual practiced by 19th century English couples, the promenade was a public stroll down the “drag,” respectively segregated into white- and blue-collar sides of the street. This issue of class is also implicit in Rochelle’s contemporary segregation and the corollary anxiety around interracial dating.
By the early 20th century, prom had become the “democratized version of the debutante ball…afford[ing] anyone attending high school the opportunity to feel as though they too were ‘coming out,’” Best states. Because debutante balls were meant to present aristocratic ladies to prospective husbands, this connection contributed to senior prom’s proto-marriage aspect. Beyond that, proms “are supposed to capture heartfelt emotions about leaving and loss, the disbanding of a unified class who are moving on.”
But in the mid-20th century South, many high school graduates weren’t going anywhere. In her book Sexual Reckonings, Cahn calls attention to the region’s lower rate of college enrollment, suggesting that this may have intensified the pressure on high school dating relationships. Most likely, this notion played into the presumption of sexual initiation on prom night and the casting of senior prom as a “wedding dress-rehearsal”—an image that still prevails. In an April 2009 online article, Cosmo Girl termed the loss of virginity on prom night“the most played out high school cliché in Hollywood.” This overt sexualization distinguishes prom from WCHS’s Military Ball or any other high school experience in Rochelle. The trappings are the same (formal attire, a senior walk) but, especially when contrasted with the military’s ethos of discipline, the sexual innuendo is reserved for prom alone. That innuendo is enough to officially mark prom as segregation’s last bastion, even if it nowdays, it’s merely symbolic.
WCHS students claim that for them prom is more about friends than romance. “Nobody loses their virginity on prom night,” Morgan Pope says, amused by the prospect. “Most people have already done it.” As for interracial dating, “the people that are going to do it, are going to do it anyway,” she affirms.
Darrell West, a senior organizer of the community (black) prom considers it “the last time to really have fun and see all of my friends” before heading to Darton College to study accounting.
“Even people in couples would probably go with friends. Couples aren’t big in Wilcox,” Tanesha McKinney says, boosting her rectangular glasses with her index finger. “I want to have prom, and I want to remember it. I want to get dressed up, and I want to do the senior walk and take pictures, stay for awhile and get it over with.”
Best mentions prom’s wane in popularity during the counter-cultural ’60’s and its return in the late-70’s, with “the reassertion of a conservative political agenda, combined with…efforts by marketers to carve out and expand youth markets.” In Southern schools prom didn’t lose ground until the end of the ‘60’s, propelled by a more sinister rationale than bourgeois rebellion. Public school integration was legislatively mandated in 1954, but these laws weren’t enacted until 1970 when, with Alexander vs. Holmes, the Supreme Court dictated that its earlier “in permissible speed” formula was, in fact, no longer permissible. WCHS sponsored its last prom in 1970. In 1971 Rochelle’s black high school, Excelsior, shut its doors, and its students joined the white contingent at WCHS.
Entering the 1980’s, the archetypal “senior prom” became a perennial subject for Hollywood, which produced roughly a prom film a year for more than two decades. These popular entertainments, like most works of mass culture, reflect and promote dominant ideology. The Prom Queen is a conventional feminine ideal—according to Best, “pretty and popular, fashionably dressed, usually rich and almost always white.”
In Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, small-town proms are often sponsored by parents, but if these “private” proms are segregated, the school usually offers an integrated alternative. Well into the new millennium, a handful of southern Georgia counties—Johnson, Taylor, Toombs, Turner and Wilcox—continued to hold non-school-sponsored segregated proms. By 2007 every school except WCHS had either buckled under unflattering media attention or made sincere efforts at progress. Every school had, at least once, offered an integrated prom.
The 2006 Lifetime television movie, For One Night, dramatized the 2002 student-led integration of Taylor County High School’s prom, just north of Macon. Many white students boycotted the school prom, choosing to attend a separate parent-planned prom instead. And at 2009’s Sundance film festival, a high-profile documentary called Prom Night in Mississippi detailed Charleston High School’s first integrated prom in 2008, funded by actor Morgan Freeman, the town’s most famous resident. Again white parents held a competing event. Even in counties that integrated prom decades ago—counties neighboring Wilcox, such as Tift, Dooly and Crisp—school-sponsored proms are widely attended by black students, while private proms are attended by white students.
That’s just what Whitney Turner believes would happen if WCHS sponsored a prom, and it’s one reason WCHS Principal Arney Bryant remains lackluster on the matter. “If we offered a school-sponsored prom and either no blacks or no whites came, then we still have that image of a segregated prom,” he notes wearily.
Sanctioned or not, interracial co-mingling is nothing new in Wilcox. “Mr. Bryant says we’re not ready for a mixed prom. Well I’m sorry, but they’re already having mixed babies!” Gwen Turner crows.
And around WCHS, no one seems to expect Obama’s presidential term to affect the perceived “acceptability” of this phenomenon. The white students regard Obama’s election with hostility, if they acknowledge it at all. “The day of the election was wild, because most of the black people were going around hollering ‘Obama’ and the white people said that whenever presidents got elected in the past, we never walked around school saying [the president’s name],” Molly Pope, Morgan’s 16-year-old sister remembers. More recently someone ripped Obama’s picture off a presidential calendar in a history classroom, and a boy sported a shirt on which he’d written the slogan “NObama.” But for the most part, WCHS students seem disengaged.
Tanesha McKinney doesn’t understand the white kids’ dissociation. “He’s not just black, he’s white too. He was raised by white people,” she asserts.
But Regan Beale echoes the opinion of many of her friends when she bluntly states, “Most people just don’t care.”
Perhaps election-based racial hostility was short-lived at WCHS, but another kind of hostility never dies down—antipathy towards white girls who have had interracial romances lingers well after the relationships end. The girls’ willing participation threatens what Cahn identifies as one of the South’s core values, a “foundational association between chastity and whiteness,” and discredits the myth of the sexually aggressive black male and his white female victim. More to the point, affection given by choice erodes notions of fixed racial inequality, whether perceived as biological or social.
When junior Amber Phillips’s parents discovered that she had begun dating a black friend, they kicked her out of the house. “People were already saying things because we sat together at lunch, so I thought I’d just go ahead and do it,” she explains, her hazel eyes catching warm highlights from a weak, early-Spring sun. She stayed with her best friend for two weeks, moving back home only after promising never to speak to the guy 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,” she laments. “Plus, I guess you could call me a parents’ girl.” Phillips hugs herself through her camouflage jacket, thinking of her family. She didn’t want to jeopardize her close relationship with her parents and her little sister.
Historically black men paid physically, sometimes with their lives, if they dared breach the taboo of expressing—not to mention acting on—an attraction to a white woman. Sometimes a black man paid just for glancing her way. Many scholars agree that black emasculation was an end unto itself, but the root of this practice lay with white men’s obsessive need to control white femininity and sexuality.
In contemporary Rochelle, new technology has revived an old trope: the white girl deemed to have overstepped boundaries of propriety becomes the subject of “forwards”—mass-circulated text message rumors. She may be humiliatingly presented to her pastor to “fix,” may lose her phone, her car, her privileges and sometimes even her home for violating the prohibition against interracial romance. Consequently, “most girls keep it as quiet as they can, but being that our school has 400 people at most, it gets out pretty quick,” Morgan Pope says.
The co-head of the white prom committee, a WCHS junior who refuses to be named, emphasizes that it’s not okay for white girls to befriend black guys. “It starts the rumor that they’re sleeping together,” she insists. She and Regan Beale used to be close, but when a forward publicized the accusation that Beale was participating in an interracial romance, she decided to drop the friendship. “She was bringing me into it with her, and I was supposedly doing it too. I love her to death, but I’m not going to put myself in a position to be talked about like that,” the junior alleges.
Lisa Bloodsworth, whose son is also on white prom committee, says, “I don’t care about a mixed prom, but I have two sons. If I had daughters, it’d be different.”
Her husband, Sheriff Stacey Bloodsworth, has an 11-year-old daughter. “I have a problem with my children dating the opposite race,” he says blatantly. “I have a problem with my children being homosexual. That’s the way I was raised, that’s what I believe in. Some of my best friends that are of the other race will tell you the same thing.”
John Wilson Gordon and Tyler McWhorter also know where they stand on the interracial dating issue. “It’s mainly the girls that do it. We look down upon those girls,” McWhorter says. “It’s just not right, races shouldn’t mix. Party together, all that, yeah. But have relationships? Nooo.”
“It really started to piss off the white boys when the white girls began losing their virginity to black boys,” Tanesha McKinney explains.
McKinney pinpoints the tacit way that Gordon, McWhorter and their peers have absorbed and now replicate the old race-gender paradigm: white women are perceived as possessions of white men, and white men have a responsibility to protect them from black men. So they see no problem when an interracial couple is harassed buying groceries, or the details of a teen girl’s sex-life are broadcast in an open forum, or a public high school offers no prom, while private citizens offer two proms to public high school seniors.
The WCHS school handbook states that no prom planning or fundraising events shall occur on school grounds, and no teachers shall be involved in such events during school hours. It’s a policy that explicitly exempts the school from any charges of violating the legal mandates of integration. With private funding and private venues, segregated proms are legally permissible, says Chara Jackson of the Atlanta ACLU.
But according to Rea Harrison at the University of Iowa College of Law, this distinction between public and private realms is merely a loophole. In a 2007 article in The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Harrison notes that some parents justify these segregated proms by likening them to private birthday parties. Their insinuation is that race is coincidental, while the friendship factor is key.
Harrison rejects their analogy, arguing that legally you can’t separate a public high school from its prom, regardless of whether teacher participation is discouraged. She quotes the Merriam-Webster definition—“prom is a formal dance given by a high school or college class”—and states that “Georgia’s racially segregated proms…are so strongly affiliated with their respective high school institutions that the events should be considered public, not private.”
If a school dropped its prom in the face of forced integration and the community breached the gap by organizing private events, then “the administrations’ deliberate omission to act upon the schools’ commonly acknowledged preference for racial segregation amounts to indirect endorsement,” she writes. “Students in Georgia are faced with the decision—forego one of the most significant events of their educational experience or submit to their community’s tradition of …perpetual racism.”
Whitney Turner says she and her sister Brittney have been invited to the white prom. “My friends always tell me, ‘come to the prom’ and stuff. I’m like, I’m not going to that prom, your parents will look at me wrong,” she declares. But she’s worried about more than just parents. Recently she acknowledges confronting “a girl who pretends to be my friend,” who has been telling other students that the twins should not be welcome at prom.
Sometimes black students join white parents at the opening of white prom, to witness—even support—their friends at the senior walk. But as soon as the walk ends, these students are expected to leave. “If a black kid tries to buy a ticket to white prom, it would depend on who the black kid was. It would also depend on who was selling tickets,” says the co-head of the white prom committee. “I wouldn’t be like, no, you can’t go, I’d just be like, you’d have to talk to somebody else. It’s not just me, there are three or four girls in charge. I’m not going be the one who’s like, yeah, you can go.” But no white upperclassman would be barred from purchasing a ticket, she maintains.
In the concrete-block cave of his office, Principal Bryant, who attended an integrated prom in Dooley County in 1979, concedes that private or not, the community still associates the segregated proms with WCHS. “But should something inappropriate happen at the prom, I don’t think the school is cast in a negative light,” he asserts. “However, when people go off and have separate proms, outsiders say, ‘that school still has two separate proms,’ even though the school doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
He holds out his palms and sighs. “What am I supposed to do? There are other issues that I need to be concerned with. We need to get test scores up. I’m more concerned about these kids not dropping out of school than I am with them going to an integrated prom.”
Bryant’s anxieties are warranted. The federal government labels 73 percent of his students “economically disadvantaged,” and white WCHS students have a higher drop-out rate than the state average. In 2008 WCHS did not meet the No Child Left Behind criteria for academic performance; nearly 70 percent of its students failed the Math exam, and 30 percent failed Language Arts.
Bryant has no idea which prom, if any, the school’s Latino population attends, and personally, he doesn’t go to either prom. He states this as if it’s entirely his choice. It seems not to have occurred to him that he might actually be banned from the white prom due to the color of his skin.
Anyhow, he insists, the prom is an issue for the board of education, and the no-prom policy is beyond his scope of influence. “If the kids expressed an interest in having one prom, I believe the board would consider it,” he says. “It should be the majority of the kids and an effort that’s supported by the community. Because in a small town like this, something simple that transpires in the high school could divide the community along racial lines. You have to be careful about whether or not the community is totally for it.”
But it seems as if Bryant’s fears lag behind reality: the community is already divided. “I’ve had one parent raise the issue in a sincere fashion, and that parent was a member of the school council. I told that parent to get together with parents of the white community and parents of the black community, and we’ll make a proposal to the board of education.” He shakes his clasped hands as he says, “I can’t just go down to the board and say ‘we’re going to have a school sponsored prom.’ The board will say ‘oh no you’re not.’ I need to have ammunition if I’m going to do something that nontraditional.” His white boss, district superintendent Charles Bloodsworth, hung up abruptly and repeatedly when asked by telephone to comment.
In the past few decades, there has been some effort from school authorities and parents to change WCHS’s status as one of America’s last high schools without an integrated prom, but they didn’t get far. Home Ec teacher Diane Owens recalls a former assistant principal’s attempt to integrate dances in the mid-90’s. Before investing the money and effort in prom, he organized trial runs. There was a fall party, attended by 13 students, and then a Christmas dance, attended by only six. They considered the effort a flop and until a few years ago, segregated dances—homecoming and prom—remained undisputed.
Though Diane Owens’ three kids attended white proms, she thinks WCHS could hold a successfully integrated prom. But she is reluctant to lead the charge. “The reason I don’t push it any more than I do is because I would be the one getting it together,” she explains. In her designated role as team football mother, Owens already has a lot on her plate. “It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she sighs.
But Gwen Turner was willing to take up the task. When her daughter, Iesha Faison, entered WCHS as a freshman in 2006, Turner made it her mission to integrate prom by her daughter’s junior year. They started with petitions. Faison tried to collect signatures at school, but many white students claimed their parents wouldn’t want them to sign. Turner collected signatures in the businesses of Abbeville, the county seat. About half of the fifty signatures belonged to white adults, but most of them didn’t have high-school aged children.
“Only one woman wouldn’t sign,” Turner remembers. “She works in City Hall and she told me she had to think about it, to come back later. Then I knew where she stood, so I didn’t go back.”
Gwen Turner deemed the petitions a half-hearted effort. She never passed them to anyone in authority, but she did meet with Principal Bryant about changing the handbook policy. He told her to come back with a white parent. The white parents that Turner contacted all claimed to support an integrated prom, but they weren’t sure what other parents would want. They were reluctant to publicly join Turner’s campaign.
A part-time event planner and WCHS substitute teacher, Turner decided to organize her own alternative. In 2007 she began working on 2009’s community prom, and she’s quick to correct anyone who labels it “black prom.” On the days she spends at WCHS, Turner oversteps handbook guidelines, openly promoting community prom and letting students of all races know that they’re welcome to attend. “Maybe it will be mostly black kids, but anybody can come. That’s the kind of prom we’re having,” she proclaims.
Gwen Turner helped 2008’s juniors plan a prom that she hoped would be integrated, but in the end, no white kids showed. So in March, when Darrell West sold the first two 2009 tickets to a white senior named Jessica Amerson, Turner was ecstatic. Maybe 2009 would be the year, she thought.
For all the division, the bifurcating tracks and segregated classrooms, WCHS is a deceptively close-knit community. Across racial lines, students and teachers’ have each other’s cell phone numbers. And because gossip moves private affairs into the public sphere with alarming rapidity, teachers seem to be thoroughly versed on what’s happening in their students’ lives. Many of them share instructor Vickie Brown’s outlook: “I’m here for more than just teaching music. I’m here so they have somebody they can come to. I’m here to impact lives,” she asserts.
As illustrated by Jay McDuffie’s funeral, neither is teenage life in Wilcox County as binary as it would seem. “[The seniors] are a close class,” Tanesha McKinney says, nodding passionately. “Connie [a white girl] gets on my nerves all the time, but in Spanish II, we’re like right there. I’m not going to let her fail. I want to graduate with my classmates.”
White kids often attend black kids’ parties and from time to time, black kids—mostly athletes—show up at white parties. Iesha Faison grins, recalling Beale at a party some weekends back. “Shoot, Regan be all up in those black boys’ parties, jiggin’ just like we do,” she says.
And while many white adults dismiss interracial relationships as adolescent rebellion, to the kids involved, the emotions can be deep and genuine. Molly Pope, Morgan Pope’s 16-year-old sister and a sophomore at WCHS, dated David Grace, class of 2008, for a little over a year.
“He was my first love,” she says. “He was different from other boys, he didn’t talk to me one minute and then the next, talk to somebody else. He was sweet.” They had a lot in common, “from foods, to what we liked to do, to what we thought was funny, to what kind of movies we liked,” she elaborates.
When Morgan found out, so did their parents. Molly was grounded and her phone was taken away. “But we saw each other at school, on breaks and at football games. I did cheerleading, and he was a football player, so we were always together at practices. We were always together, when they did know and when they didn’t,” she admits. Because of her parents, Molly and Grace never had an official “date,” and they didn’t make Grace’s senior prom. After he graduated, the couple had no way of seeing each other, and eventually even phone conversations petered out.
She misses Jay McDuffie. Even as other friends distanced themselves, his support never wavered. “It’s funny because awhile back, before David, Jay and I used to date. Jay was the one person I could talk to anytime. I was on the phone with him every weekend,” she recalls. “Jay would have gone to a mixed prom, definitely.” And if she thought she could get away with it, if she thought she could keep her parents from knowing, so would she, she confesses.
Regan Beale suggests that if“a couple of white kids from the right group went to the black prom, then everybody else would go, because you know, people can’t think for themselves.”
Like any school, WCHS has a few exceptionally influential students with the potential to bridge schisms. Described as “intimidating” by her friend Whitney, Beale is one of them. Hailing from a hugely successful farming family, she’s the kind of girl who shops on Friday evening for Friday night, drives herself to out-of-town dance lessons in her own silver Lexus, has her own horse and, as an investment, her own herd of cattle. For Beale this authority is complicated by the clash of her personal beliefs, her family’s beliefs and the manipulation of her family’s material privilege.
Jay McDuffie was one of these students, too, and Darrell West—handsome, easy-going, African-American, and recently elected class favorite—is another. West has used his pull to solicit attendance for Gwen Turner’s community prom, but he hasn’t found much support among his white classmates.
The afternoon of April 10—Good Friday—is warm and windy. In front of the refurbished (pre-integration black) Excelsior High School, now owned by a nonprofit called Save Our Kids, the iron trellis woven with artificial roses keeps falling over, even though it’s weighted with bricks. Gwen Turner is everywhere at once, arranging cake on silver trays, mixing ginger ale and fruit punch, checking in with the photographer, tabulating last minute court votes and searching for trash bags. She’s recruited aid, in the form of spic-and-span underclassmen in crisp white shirts and ROTC uniforms. They cluster near the food table, waiting for direction.
With West’s help, Turner and her mother spent yesterday dangling foil from basketball-goals, draping plants in twinkling lights and dotting the dance floor with red balloons. They finished at 8 p.m. and then spent half the night making pigs-in-a-blanket, mac-and-cheese and fruit salad to go with the catered meatballs, hot-wings and cake. Gwen Turner is exhausted.
“It has been a time, and it gets worse as it get closer,” she gasps, hoisting a heavy steel buffet server onto a covered folding table. It’s only 4 p.m., but already kids mill about—dashing young men in white tuxes with tails, and ladies in floor-length, candy-colored gowns. Some of them line up for photos, others find Turner and hand off $10 bills—at $25 a couple, community prom is $15 cheaper than white prom. Even so, Turner lets students pay in installments.
As the sun sinks behind the unpretentious brick schoolhouse, the seniors and their escorts line up near the entrance. To the strains of Kenny G’s “Forever in Love,” they strut through the iron trellis and down a red carpet that buffers fancy heels from parking lot gravel. Always the clown, West holds out a hand to “present” his cousin and date, Burnetta Youngblood. She prances a circle around him, her short, shockingly-orange skirt and bronzed curls bouncing the rhythm of her steps. The black WCHS seniors stand silhouetted against the looming mushrooms of neighboring peanut gins.
In the small crowd of onlookers, there are three white faces: biracial senior Mercedes Bickham’s aunt and cousin have come, and WCHS music teacher Vickie Brown has been asked to announce “Most Attractive.”
As for white participants, only one couple shows up: Jessica Amerson smoothes the front of her leopard-print dress and slips into a chair beside her boyfriend, Justin Wilkes, in a matching leopard-print cummerbund. A 2003 WCHS alum, Wilkes is busy peeling the foil off a waiting bottle of sparkling grape juice. For Wilkes, community prom was the obvious choice. “It’s 2009,” he says emphatically. “Segregation’s not what this nation is about anymore. That’s the whole reason we had the Civil Rights Movement.”
Amerson adds that last year at white prom, “everybody left thirty minutes into it.” She wanted her senior prom to be a better experience. But she also saw attending community prom as a statement. “Just because of my color, why can’t I hang out with the people I do everyday?” she demands.
Community prom proceeds smoothly, from a fashion show to dancing to award announcements. Iesha Faison is crowned Junior Prom Princess, and Darrell West wins Prom King. Though it wasn’t as integrated or well attended as she would have liked (final count: 27 students and/or dates; racial breakdown: 1 Latino, 2 white, 1 biracial, 23 black), Gwen Turner labels prom a success. As she’s clearing tables and scraping plates, she proudly mentions that “so many kids came up and thanked me and said prom was good.” She knows it’s the most official prom black students have been offered in years.
But only three of the eight kids at last month’s community center meeting actually made prom. For Rusheena Boone, it came down to finances. She didn’t think she could afford the dress (which could run anywhere from $120-$400), the pictures ($30-60) and the ticket ($20 for a single). As the night continues, money becomes a sensitive issue.
Gwen Turner hired D.J. Dirt Black to stay on through the after-party, which is open to the public for the compromised price of $6. Turner wanted to charge $10, but parties in rented spaces are regular weekend fare in Rochelle, and cover is steadily $3. Darrell West convinced her that no one would pay $10.
The after-party started an hour ago, but at 10 p.m., Dirt Black is spinning to an empty gym. The temperature has plummeted, and the gravel lot is crowded with kids, some of them clearly past high-school age. They drape over playground equipment and loaf on the hoods of cars, the girls shivering in shorts and tees. Everyone wants to go in, but no one wants to pay $6. Gwen Turner is unwilling to drop the price.
She comes out to survey the scene, and then storms back in, huffing to anybody nearby, “This is not some little party. This is prom. I’m done with this. Next year, y’all are on your own.” She knows if nobody pays, those extra D.J. hours will leak from her own pocketbook.
Whitney Turner’s white friends typically show for prom after-parties, but tonight she arrives alone. “This is the black part of town, they’re scared to come,” she explains. “It’s usually at the Ag Center, which is on the white side.” A yard over, someone shoots off firecrackers that, with enough imagination, could be construed as gunshots. But it’s also a holiday weekend, and WCHS has been on vacation since Thursday. Compliments of lightening, the strobe-effect outside is beginning to emulate that of the dance floor.
Whitney receives a text from Regan Beale. “Be careful,” Beale warns. “There are tornados all around my house.”
Inside, Gwen Turner is frantic and considering calling the police. “There are tornado warnings out and 100 kids in the parking lot!” she exclaims.
“Mrs. Turner please, just drop the price to $3,” Darrell West negotiates. “I promise, they’ll be lining up to come in.” She groans and acquiesces. Within five minutes, the dance floor transforms into an impressive conversation of body-based vibration. But two hours later, the party ends abruptly, when “Stanky Leg” is disrupted by an ominous whirl of storm sirens. Gwen Turner watches the dance floor drain to the parking lot, regretting that, although 2009 is the year for a biracial president, it’s not the year for a truly multiracial WCHS prom.
A week later, on April 18, the white kids have their prom in Cordele at the Pine Hills Country Club, only “they’re calling it private prom now,” Amber Phillips explains. “It’s private prom and community prom, not white and black prom.” And for Phillips, this year’s private prom is a disappointment.
She spent all day preparing. At 11 a.m. her hairdresser transformed her brown locks into cascading ringlets. Two hours later, Phillips had just stepped into her pink gown, specially ordered from New York, when her boyfriend, Collin Steele, arrived for pictures. They made the rounds of grandparents’ and aunts’ houses before heading to Lake Blackshear for a steak and quail dinner, which Phillips labels “not that good and overpriced.”
Prom started at 8 p.m. When Phillips and Steele arrived 15 minutes later, they had already missed the senior walk and the crowning of the court. “There was a seniors’ slow dance and a juniors’ slow dance, and then people started to leave,” Phillips says, mystified. She and her friends stayed and danced another three songs—“We paid $40 for these tickets!” she exclaims—but by then, the place was totally deserted.
“I guess they left to get drunk,” Phillips offers. “But this is prom. I can do that sitting on my living room couch…most of them won’t dance unless they’re drunk.”
Kids who attended prom in previous years aren’t surprised. “Prom is more about the parties afterwards,” Morgan Pope says. “And the walk, I guess.”
“We should have just called roll and dismissed everybody,” Ceila McGlamory, one of the parent-chaperones, jokes.
Those kids who have the cash ($200 a person) claim their spots on the chartered party bus—“It’s like a motor home that they’ve taken everything out of…its got neon lights, leather seats and blacked out windows, sometimes a stripper pole,” Morgan Pope explains—and everyone else heads separate ways.
Phillips and Steele join a few other couples at “Saigon,” a large red-clay crater on the outskirts of Cordele, most often frequented by mud-riders and under-aged drinkers. “I was like, what in the Sam Hill is a ‘Saigon,’” Phillips says, giggling. But on prom night, she is up for anything.
Saigon is the kind of place you only get to with four-wheel drive, and approaching headlights mean “kill yours” just in case it’s the cops. The night is freezing. As Steele backs his truck into the circle of tailgates, Phillips, now changed into a denim miniskirt, scrambles amongst her friends collecting coats.
She can’t wait to go back to Saigon. For Phillips, the mud pit is much more memorable than her first prom. “I guess next year, I’ll plan better. I won’t be late, so I can at least walk with my class,” she decides.
Meanwhile Whitney Turner and a sophomore friend miss the senior walk. Whitney is upset because she had promised her friends she’d come. “They said, ‘last year all the black girls came to watch Anna Wilson walk,’” she groans.
But Whitney couldn’t find the Country Club, and when she called their cells, no prom-goers answered. So she and her friend settle for a Saturday night of Burger King and Wal-Mart. Whitney Turner is optimistic about her senior year, though. “I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance that I’ll go,” she estimates, “because next year it’ll be our class that are seniors, and none of them have any problems between white and black. The really prejudiced people are leaving.” But then she sighs. “I don’t know. The white kids will always use their parents as an excuse. It is their parents, somewhat.”
And in April 2010, a new batch of white WCHS juniors planned prom for white WCHS seniors, but neither Whitney or Brittney attended. “Even though all our best friends are white, and some of them date black guys, we didn’t think we should go,” Whitney says. She didn’t go because this year, no one planned a community prom, and there is still no school-sponsored prom—which means that, in 2010, nonwhite WCHS students weren’twelcome at any prom.
Back in January 2009, in the midst of visiting venues and pricing caterers, Whitney’s aunt, Gwen Turner, had told her daughter, “Excuses are like buttholes—everybody’s got one. But one day, people are going to wake up. One day, it’s going to happen.”