Equity & Diversity

In Some Southern Towns, Prom Night a Black-or-White Affair

By Mark Walsh — May 14, 2003 7 min read
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The very allure of the prom is that it isn’t just another school dance. It evokes a more traditional era, with boys in tuxedos and girls in evening gowns practicing social graces that many will rarely encounter again in their adult lives. But in Southern towns such as Butler, Ga., St. James, La., and a number of others, the high school prom calls to mind a different time: the 1970s.

That is when many Southern schools were belatedly integrated, and the time when a new set of traditions was born. While black and white students now sat side by side in classrooms and on the school bus, the races would still often gather separately when it came time for the biggest dance of the year.

In what has been defended as an effort to ease the transition to integrated schools, many schools also chose separate black and white sets of homecoming royalty, class officers, and even “senior superlatives,” such as the black senior and the white senior “most likely to succeed.”

Such separatist practices gradually melded in most schools. So it comes as something of a shock to many Americans when, nearly a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” schooling, examples of overt segregation suddenly make news.

Georgia’s Taylor County High School, in rural Butler, received media attention as far away as Britain last year when, after 30 years of racially separate proms, the school’s students decided to come together for its first integrated prom.

But if the school took two giant steps forward last year with its successful black and white prom, it appears to have taken at least one big step back this spring. While the school’s second integrated prom was scheduled for last week, a group of white students went back to having an exclusive all-white affair on May 2.

“It just breaks my heart to know that, in this day and age, a form of racism this blatant could manifest itself,” said Elaine Hatchett, a district coordinator for the Georgia chapter of the NAACP. “We are in the year 2003, and these are the kinds of things we still have to contend with.”

A 50-Mile Drive

Taylor County High has some 440 students, slightly more than half of them African-American. It is not clear how many white students attended the segregated prom at a banquet hall in Columbus, Ga., about 50 miles away from Butler.

The 1,800-student school district has long disavowed any official endorsement of either a black or white prom, as well as last year’s first integrated event.

But the high school’s reputation was hardly enhanced by a return of the white prom, which traditionally has been organized as a private party. Some of the attendees defended the white prom before TV cameras as simply the continuation of a tradition, or “no big deal.”

One young man entering the event told CNN that he wasn’t bothered that there were no black students attending because “there’s going to be black people catering there, so it’s not a racist prom.”

Taylor County Superintendent of Schools Wayne Smith, who was chastised on national cable television last week by Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly for not taking a more aggressive stance against the white prom, said in an interview with Education Week that he would ask the school board this week to consider official sponsorship of an integrated prom on school grounds in Butler.

“The board’s position has been that we’re not in the prom business,” Mr. Smith said. “But we’re rethinking that because we have just gotten beaten up in the media. It makes us look like a bunch of hicks.”

The superintendent said that student prom committees, whether black, white, or integrated, have preferred to hold their events in Columbus, Macon, or elsewhere because Butler, with a population of 8,000, has no suitable private hall for such an event.

Because of liability concerns, the district has not wanted to have an official role in the proms taking place 50 miles or more away, Mr. Smith said. He plans to suggest that next year’s prom be held at the high school, but he’s not sure that any senior wants to be under the close supervision of school chaperones at the dance.

“Down the road, this will correct itself,” Mr. Smith added. “But how much do we push the issue by having the prom on the school site?”

To Ms. Hatchett of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, school officials and parents should take much more responsibility in guiding students toward an end to segregated practices.

“The adults have a great responsibility for what these kids are doing,” she said. “This is something that is taught in the home, that this is OK. We should be pulling our young people to the side and saying, ‘Let’s not do this.’”

‘Most Likely to Succeed’

The prom is not the only school tradition in which some Southern schools have clung to racial separation. Some schools, for instance, have both black and white homecoming kings and queens.

Taylor High has separate white and black class officers, a tradition that Mr. Smith said is tied to separate proms because the dance is the officers’ main project.

Shandra Hill, a 1989 graduate of Taylor High, recalls that she was voted the black girl “most likely to succeed.” A white girl won a matching distinction.

Ms. Hill, in fact, has been a success as a novelist and a freelance writer in Atlanta, and last year she helped mentor Gerica McCrary, the Taylor High student who was the moving force behind the first integrated prom.

“Change is not an overnight process,” Ms. Hill said last week. “I’m hoping that even though we regressed this year, that doesn’t cancel out the possibility that change will come. I hope that Taylor County and other [communities with separate proms] can see that the rest of the world is quite diverse.”

While the relative handful of communities with racially separate activities are sometimes viewed as the last vestiges of another era, one observer believes that they reflect a continuing obsession among some people in the South over race issues and the legacy of the Civil War.

Mark A. Potok, a journal editor at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., said “white nationalists” and “neo-Confederate” movements have tried to inflame tensions over such issues as displays of the Confederate battle flag.

“I think these incidents reflect an ongoing struggle over race relations in the South that has not died, and in many ways has come back to life with a vengeance,” he said.

In Canton, Ga., 35 north of Atlanta, protests flared last year when a high school principal prohibited students from wearing a popular line of Confederate-themed clothing. (“Battle Flag T-Shirts Divide Ga. School,” Oct. 30, 2002.)

When Mr. O’Reilly, the outspoken Fox News Channel host who criticized the white prom, offered viewers an online poll to register their views, he said “a neo-Nazi” organization posted a request to its members to log on in support of the white students.

According to Mr. O’ Reilly, the neo-Nazi group’s Web site said, “They’re trying to crucify some white kids in Georgia for having their own prom.”

A New Tradition

Far from the media glare that the Taylor County school district attracted in recent weeks, St. James High School, a public school in the 4,000-student St. James Parish district in southern Louisiana, held its first integrated prom early this month after some 30 years of separate events.

Jennifer Becnel is a junior at the school who was on a committee that was planning a white prom. But the committee was facing money troubles and found itself casting a wider net for students to attend the white event, getting in touch, for example, with students who may have attended elementary school together but went to private high schools. St. James High has 464 students, including 55 who are white.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we just bring the proms together?’ and the black students were thrilled,” Ms. Becnel said. “I never did consider myself racist.”

But the white prom was viewed as a tradition, and each prom committee had trouble breaking with that tradition until this year, she added.

Ms. Becnel spoke matter-of-factly about racial attitudes in her community. “We couldn’t have any black people invited” to the white prom, she said. “If someone had a black date, the prom committee would say, ‘No, you could not have that.’ I felt that was wrong.”

She recalled that last year an African-American student who mostly hung out with white students was quietly informed that he would not be joining his friends at the white prom.

Ms. Becnel has heard that at least one public school in a nearby parish—the Louisiana equivalent of a county—still maintains its separate black and white proms.

“In some towns around here, racism is still bad,” she said. “I thought after Martin Luther King came along, this wouldn’t happen.”

The first integrated prom “was a big step,” Ms. Becnel added. “It was wonderful. All the blacks and whites attended, and everybody danced together.

“I’m sure it will stay that way now,” she continued. “Since we broke the tradition [of the white prom], the students coming after us will see that it is much better.”

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