The Fight For Wilcox County's First Integrated Prom
Last month, black and white students from a tiny south Georgia county attended prom together for first time. Was this a big step away from the past or a small aberration in a community doomed to repeat it?
Pineview is a ghost town. It's a Saturday afternoon, and one gas station remains open along a two-lane thoroughfare meandering through the surrounding South Georgia farmlands. The 500-person town's tiny café and pharmacy closed hours ago. Numerous buildings have been painted with vibrant murals to cover their derelict interiors throughout its four city blocks. Along with Abbeville, Pitts, and Rochelle, this is one of four towns that comprise Wilcox County, population 9,000, two and a half hours south of Atlanta. Wilcox County High School junior Kameon Peavy lives a short walk away on S Land Line Road, where family and friends are preparing for tonight's prom. The rural town is the only home Peavy has ever known. He describes growing up there with a single word: "boring." The soft-spoken linebacker lays out his attire and sheepishly grins while he shares the story about how he landed the nickname "Fat Nasty" that's sewn in cursive stitching onto the front of his blue and yellow letterman jacket. It started years ago when his classmates playfully teased him about his weight; he's lean these days, but the nickname sticks. The NFL draft is on in the background as Peavy slowly prepares his outfit, all black, which includes a feathered bowler hat and a wooden cane. The exceptions are the elegant white dots on his obsidian bow tie that he struggles to get around his neck. He looks sharp with a fresh haircut and clean shave, and like most 17-year-olds, he isn't entirely sure how his formalwear works. He stares intently at his garb, which includes a fitted suit vest and straight-laced dress shoes. And he's still tussling with that bow tie. "Stop breathing," Sheba Nelson says as she attempts to get the band around his neck. Nelson, a family friend, has driven nearly 100 miles south from Milledgeville, Georgia, with her daughter Victoria Epps, who is Peavy's date. With only a few hours to go, Peavy seems nervous and excited. The opulent pageantries of a prom can have that effect on almost any teenager. But there's a little added pressure tonight: This is the first time Wilcox County High School students will attend a racially integrated prom. "Part of living in the South is you don't see too many white and black kids getting together after school to go out and have fun," says Peavy. "You don't see blacks and whites at each other's houses too often." Peavy and Epps stand together outside the house as friends, family, and neighbors admire their outfits. They pose for dozens of photos before heading off to the prom. Epps kicks her red high heels up in the air as her escort stands tall, letting the top hat and cane do the talking. He checks his phone for the time and realizes it's time leave. While everyone looks at their photos, he glances up and smiles. "I feel great being a part of history."
In the six decades since Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for integration in American schools, many things have changed in the rural American South, but the traditional high school prom can be stubbornly anachronistic. In 2004, Toombs County, Georgia, held three separate proms — one each for white, black, and Hispanic students. Superintendent Kendall Brantley said to The Star-News that it gave the kids "more opportunity" to attend dances. Five years later, Montgomery County High School seniors hosted a "black-folks prom" and a "white-folks prom." In talking with The New York Times, some students chalked up the separated events to tradition, parents, and failed attempts to unite the two proms. Around 20 miles south of Wilcox County, Turner County High School held its first-ever integrated prom in 2007. Its theme was "Breakaway" — as in, distancing itself from past traditions as much as possible. Some praised the dance as long overdue, but others called out certain students for hosting a separate white prom the weekend before. Nichole Royal, a white senior, told CNN that black students could've come to the white prom, but understood why they didn't. "I guess they feel like they're not welcome," she said. Eighty miles northwest of Wilcox County, Taylor County High School students reverted back to hosting segregated proms in 2009 after having their first integrated prom one year earlier. Sometimes it takes an A-list movie star to drag a town into the 21st century. Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman directed Prom Night in Mississippi, chronicling Charleston, Mississippi's first racially integrated prom in 2008, which came about when longtime resident Morgan Freeman offered to foot the bill. (He also offered in 1997 and was turned down.) "One thing that was surprising was how [a few] people with extreme beliefs can silence the whole majority," says Saltzman. "[Many] white parents did not want the separate proms, but hadn't even done anything about it for fear." Wilcox County High School students have always had separate proms. For years, parents organized private proms, euphemistically referred to as "parties," after the nearly 400-person high school decided not to sponsor student activities. Whereas people in town say that white students were always welcome at the black prom, in the past, a biracial student who attempted to enter the white prom was barred at the door by police. Students of different races now go to classes, play sports, and hang out together, but dancing together in formalwear has remained verboten. Twenty miles separate I-75 and Rochelle, home to Wilcox County's academic elementary, middle, and high school buildings and athletic facilities — just long enough to notice individual insects splatter across one's windshield. Railroad tracks divide the town — black families primarily dwell in the community's northern parts, and white families live closer to the school. Rochelle has a median annual household income of around $31,000 — $18,000 below the state median. Despite some progress, Leroy Dantley, Rochelle's lone African-American city councilman, thinks cultural and economic disparities are due to an overall sense of complacency from community members. "Change comes begrudgingly, [it's] not being denied," he says. "People hate to leave their comfort zone." Harriet Hollis, who runs the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education's racial healing program, says those issues remain partially because certain white community members carry a "separate is better" mentality and put blinders on toward the town's underlying issues. "When you ask them if there are any racial issues," she says, "everything is OK, everything is hunky-dory." The state's NAACP chapters try to monitor which communities are still having segregated proms, but since these dances tend to happen in remote, rural towns, media outlets aren't always around to call attention to them. And for residents living in these communities, it can also be easier to let traditions continue instead of making a fuss.
Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker distinctly remembers how the idea started. It was during her junior year when she and her three best friends since fourth grade — Keela Bloodworth, Stephanie Sinnott, and Quanesha Wallace — began to discuss impending high school milestones such as homecoming, prom, and graduation. "[We were] excited about all that," Rucker says in her home, sitting beside Sinnott and her mother, Toni, three days before the prom. "We're thinking about prom dresses and everything about that — the guys aren't as worried about it."
It was during one of those initial conversations when Rucker, an African-American cheerleader and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps member, realized she wouldn't be able attend prom with Bloodworth and Sinnott, who are both white. Rucker had known about the segregation since she was a freshman, but it never registered; she even double-checked with her mom later that day to make sure it was actually still the case. "I wanted us to all have one together," she says. "It's not just black and white students or a specific race of people I hang out with — I'm friends with everybody." Rucker moved here from Atlanta when she was 8 or 9 and experienced culture shock almost immediately. "They don't know anything bigger," Rucker says. "When I first came down here, no one liked me. I spoke correct English, so the black kids thought I was trying to act preppy or white. The white kids, I had no clue why they didn't like me. It was really weird."
"It kind of has small-town people with a small-town mind," adds Sinnott, who was born in Michigan. "Nobody's really that open with anything." Last September, Hollis, whose job as a nonprofit coordinator includes helping facilitate open conversations about race in three rural counties, met with African-American students from Wilcox County High School. When she asked Rucker and her classmates "to imagine what utopia would look like," they brought up the segregated proms. "I said to them, 'You want to have an integrated prom: How would you go about doing that?'" Rucker persuaded her close friends to help her spearhead the prom. While most of her peers were on board, Rucker says certain "high-class Caucasian kids" ignored the idea. "We got together a committee and figured out how we wanted prom to be," says Rucker. "Just the regular thing that everyone else does." Over the next several months, the integrated prom committee organized numerous fundraisers and raised money through car washes, doughnut sales, and raffle tickets. Support slowly trickled in, but it wasn't as fast as they wanted. Hollis encouraged them to create a Facebook page with a donation link, where they initially promoted a plate sale. For $7, benefactors could help support the prom and receive a hearty serving of barbecue chicken, baked beans, potato salad, a bread roll, and a slice of cake. Knowing that the Wilcox County Board of Education would not help fund the prom, the student committee asked board members to at least issue a statement promoting their cause. "We didn't ask them for any monetary funds, because we knew they didn't have it," Rucker says. "Instead of that, they gave us a 'resolution' that they didn't support any community activity." Wilcox County superintendent Steve Smith said in a statement that he and the county Board of Education "applauded the idea" and passed a resolution "requesting that all activities involving [Wilcox County Schools] students be inclusive and non-discriminatory." In many ways, the nonbinding measure was largely ceremonial and implicitly allowed segregated proms to continue. "That resolution," Rucker says, "what does it really mean?" What it really means is that public officials can absolve themselves of any responsibility for a private event, no matter how loaded. Students thus aren't allowed to hold such an event on school property (although the prayer rally for Rochelle-born cornerback Alfonzo Dennard before the Patriots took him in the 2012 NFL draft was deemed school-related enough). Tony Daniels, who taught English at the school and was its only African-American teacher, also thinks that many educators have remained quiet because of a possible directive from the school's leadership in an attempt to avoid negative publicity. Some who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were strongly discouraged from talking about the prom. One administrator said that the message was so strong, he thought severe repercussions, possibly contract terminations, could happen if teachers stuck their necks out.
According to Smith, Wilcox County High School principal Chad Davis and his leadership team stated they would explore sponsoring the prom in 2014 once this school year was over. "Instead of attacking our school system, its employees, and our community," Smith pleaded in his statement, "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." Many of Wilcox County's African-American residents are happy to talk openly about race and the related issues facing their communities, but it's hardly an open dialogue. Keela Bloodworth, who's originally from the area, thinks certain people feel the need to stick to their traditions and will even tear down posters promoting the prom to keep things the same. "Inside of school, most people try not to bring it up," says Rucker. "People act really weird. They're either overly nice to you or completely ignorant and rude. They might acknowledge it and give their opinions, but it's not a large conversation."
"The prom is just a microcosm of what's wrong with the Wilcox County school system," adds Daniels. (He was since fired in 2012, so at the moment, the high school has no black teachers.) Hollis estimates that there are only "five or six" black educators in the county's school system, which is vastly disproportionate to the percentage of black students, who comprise nearly half the student body. Ken Daniels, Tony's father, is the lone African-American administrator. "When black kids can go to school all 12 years and not have a black teacher, there's something wrong," Hollis says. According to Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Georgia chapter, that kind of schism in Georgia's school system has been present for decades. "There has been pushback and resistance to fully integrating our schools," Seagraves says. "By fully integrating, I mean equal opportunity, equal access, equal support to kids in our schools since Brown v. Board of Education. This is not a new thing."
The 2013 Wilcox County High School prom took on a larger historical importance as media outlets picked up the story — much to the dismay of some residents who didn't want the negative attention. In late March, Hollis helped get the four students featured in a local television segment with WGXA, FOX's Macon affiliate. Meteorologist/reporter Clinton Bourgeois interviewed Bloodworth, Rucker, Sinnott, and Wallace, which went viral and led to national coverage. It became so intense for the girls that Bloodworth's and Wallace's parents cut them off from interview requests. Following the media blitz, donors from across the globe, including nearly 30,000 Facebook fans, opened their pocketbooks. Melvin Everson, a black Republican, gubernatorial appointee, and Wilcox High alumni spoke out for his alma mater and implored outside observers to not misinterpret Wilcox County as a "backward, backwood" area. State Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta) contributed $100 and praised the girls' efforts.
"It's a community of good people," said Lindsey, who spent his childhood summers with his family in Wilcox County. "I want to make sure folks know that and not get sidetracked by other issues. These kids deserve to be commended for what they've done. Let's keep the focus on them." The discussion surrounding the integrated prom soon devolved into political turmoil among state officials and pundits. Better Georgia, a progressive advocacy group, stirred the pot by calling on elected officials to use their positions of power to advocate for change. Some conservative officials initially rebuked the group, but it ultimately backfired after Gov. Nathan Deal's spokesman told a local television reporter via email that the "leftist" group had pulled a "silly publicity stunt." Some opponents interpreted the comments as the governor actually condoning segregated proms. "We saw a complete lack of leadership over the state for the time he's been governor," Better Georgia executive director Bryan Long said. "How he's managed this issue is symbolic of how he's managed the state, just hoping the issue will take care of itself and somebody else will deal with the problem."
Although Deal actually had little say in the matter, he didn't help his cause once he clarified his spokesman's remarks. He only vaguely condemned "discrimination" instead of addressing Wilcox County's specific situation. In addition, the governor said that if another segregated prom came to light, he would probably stand aside on what he considered a local issue. Long described Deal's remarks as something that you "might've heard from a 1950s-era governor." Yet for all statewide political infighting, the students themselves felt largely left out of the fray, which was fine by them. Peavy had no idea the governor had even made remarks about the dance. Rucker and Sinnott were busy handling the prom's last-minute details. "All I can say is that I'm excited to be able to hang out with all of my friends, no matter what color," said Sinnott. "I'm proud that we're doing this."
Around 5 p.m., Peavy, Rucker, Sinnott, and dozens of other couples make their way over to the Cordele Community Clubhouse, a local event space in Crisp County, a half hour west of Wilcox County. A few couples, outfitted in matching fluorescent orange and turquoise formalwear, stop at Chick-fil-A to grab a quick sandwich en route to the dance. One stretch limousine shuttles several kids while other promgoers carpool with their dates. Four on-duty police officers patrol the entrance, cars parked conspicuously out front. Inside the clubhouse, Toni Rucker instructs students about the Senior Walk, a formal recognition of the senior class. "Girls on the left, guys on the right," she shouts while helping students find their places before the ceremony. Hollis lends Toni Rucker a hand with the prom's final touches and posts social media updates to the outside world. The hashtag for the evening's festivities is #oneprom. Also in front of the clubhouse rests an obelisk commemorating the Civil War's Confederate private soldiers. This 122-year-old statue stands only 30 yards away from the walkway where hundreds partake in one of the most progressive moments in the area's history. "He sprang into battle-line to defend his invaded country," an inscription on its east façade reads. "He won marvelous victories; he suffered no discreditable defeat, he never abused a triumph, and never lost fortitude in the hour of disaster." Across 16th Avenue, numerous Dixie flags adorn a street vendor's booth. Assistant Principal Ken Daniels and school board member Raymond Johnson, both black, are among the few Wilcox County education leaders in attendance; Smith, Davis, and the other white teachers and administrators are nowhere to be found. The same goes for the dissenting parents and significantly smaller group of students who held their own private whites-only party the week before in Fitzgerald, not far from Wilcox County. Reporters vigilantly watch for the handful of interracial couples, coaching the students through repeated on-camera sound bites. "I feel like we are living Martin Luther King's dream," says Alexis Miller, a white student attending with her black boyfriend, Jakevius Peterson, to one determined reporter. Toni Rucker and Harriet Hollis repeatedly emphasize to journalists that students should be left alone once the dancing begins. Inside, the dates present corsages and boutonnieres to one another, vote on a prom court, and select colorful masks covered in shiny vibrant feathers, which complements the evening's deliberately anodyne, apolitical theme, "Masquerade Ball in Paris." Toni Rucker, emcee for the evening, introduces each of the approximately 50 couples and informs the more than 100 friends, family, and administrators in attendance about each student's plans after high school. With a white shawl draped over her shoulders, Sinnott carefully holds up her flowing purple gown as she saunters down the clubhouse's pathway. Rucker — who's wearing an elegant red dress, large silver hoop earrings, and a glistening tiara — locks arms with her longtime best friend Arkel Bennett as they escort each together through an enthusiastic crowd. For an event designed to impose some normalcy on a high school rite of passage, there are constant reminders that the evening is as much about posterity as pageantry. Eric Papp, a Tampa Bay–based author who wrote a book titled Leadership By Choice, addresses the promgoers about the evening's importance and historical context. Rucker met him at a television news station during one of her first interviews and she enthusiastically invited him to the dance. "Sixty years from now, when you're ... talking to your grandchild, you'll get to tell them that you were a part of something special," he says to a mostly rapt crowd. "You all made a choice. You all chose leadership. You chose a new possibility." Bloodworth, Rucker, Sinnott, and Wallace, seated together with their dates, garner the recognition they deserve for their hard work; Papp calls them "trailblazers," to loud applause. Several metro Atlanta high school students, who asked through the Facebook page if they could come in an act of solidarity, take turns to express their support and admiration. "We know how hard it is to do the right thing when you've been taught that the right thing is wrong," says one. A prom king and queen, both black, are announced while commemorative T-shirts with the phrase "Unity in the Community" are handed out. Some students snap Instagram photos of themselves posing and dancing together, also tagged #oneprom. But the most poignant images captured are of black and white students putting their hands together to form a single heart. At one point, students commemorate the night by raising engraved champagne flutes filled with sparkling grape juice. They call it a unity toast. "Here's to starting a new tradition, something new that ain't going to be forgotten," declares Ethan Rountree, one of the white prom committee members, as glasses clink. Volunteer DJs from Atlanta and Texas blare music throughout the gala. Rucker, who trades in her tiara for a red-feathered mask, jumps at the chance to shake her hips with her date, peers, and at one point, her mom. Rhinestone-studded heels are kicked to the side of the room as the entire class gyrates together through the "Electric Slide" and forms a "unity circle" during Rihanna's "Stay." Fog cannons belch, LCDs spin and cast shades of red, green, and blue across students' faces. Peavy timidly cocks his head up as he scans the dance floor's outskirts. And plenty of other stiff-legged seniors, with a few parents still in attendance, watch from afar and exude a little teenage awkwardness. This is, by now, finally and thankfully, nothing more or less momentous than a high school dance.
Weeks later, tuxedos long returned, Wilcox County's school leaders remain quiet about the prospect of sponsoring an integrated prom in 2014. Toni Rucker says she's received the runaround from the school. Principal Davis' secretary briskly responds to me during a follow-up call that no one at the high school can talk about the matter. I'm genuinely caught off-guard minutes later when Superintendent Smith answers his phone. After I ask him a few questions, he says tersely that the prom discussions will be held behind closed doors once the school year has ended. He has no further comment.
With the way it's all played out, Peavy says he would be shocked if he weren't attending a school-sponsored prom as a senior in 2014. "The school's getting all these bad looks," he says. One official thinks it could go either way. Tony Daniels, who watched the prom's saga unfold from afar, has little faith in the board members, who he thinks will resist change at any cost. "I don't think it's a slam dunk," he says. "The racism, the prejudice, the discrimination is so deep and entrenched down there, they don't want to let go." And even if they decide to officially sponsor the event, it could be construed as a sign that leaders from Wilcox County Schools reluctantly caved into pressure instead of doing it for the right reasons. The school's original deadline of May 17 passes and no decision is made. Six days later — two days before graduation and nearly a full month after the prom — Wilcox County Schools quietly posts an update on its website: "Principal Chad Davis has stated that his Leadership Team and faculty have decided to host the school's first school-sponsored prom in the spring of 2014." I call Mareshia Rucker to ask when she'd heard about the decision and how she initially reacted. "Um...hold on just a second," she says before moving into a quieter part of her house. "Can you repeat that please?" I do. "No...actually...I...didn't...know that." Rucker listens as I explain the school's brief message: Faculty, students, and parents will form a prom committee responsible for planning and fundraising at the beginning of next school year. Her initial excitement turns to leery skepticism. "I know the county that I live in very well," she says. "Even when they're forced to do certain things, people will still have their own preconceived notions." But she will, again, turn that skepticism into action. She'll come back from college (either Wesleyan in Macon or the Art Institute in Atlanta), along with several other 2013 committee members, to ensure the tradition they began carries on. "Everything will be amazing as it was this year," Rucker says with conviction. "We're going to make sure of that."