May 1st, 2013
09:46 AM ET

Segregated prom tradition yields to unity

Editor's note: In May, the superintendent of Wilcox County, Georgia, schools announced the high school will host its first official school prom in 2014. Read the full story

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Wilcox County, Georgia (CNN) - It's a springtime tradition in this stretch of the magnolia midlands for crowds to gather at high school students' proms. They'll cheer for teens in tuxedos and gowns while an announcer reads what the students will do once they leave this pecan grove skyline.

Earlier this month, Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker rode to a historic theater in the nearby town of Fitzgerald to see her own classmates' prom celebration. She never left the car, even to catch up with her friends. She'd recently helped to invite the critical gaze of the world to her county; few would be happy to see her there, she said. Besides, she's black and wasn't invited to this prom reserved for white students anyway.

For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom - a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on.

"When people say that seeing is believing, it truly is," Mareshia says a few days later from the comfortable bustle of her family's kitchen, central command for the three generations that share it.

PHOTOS: See images from Wilcox students' first integrated prom

"Just talking about it, it didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't care," she says. "When I saw it, I felt really crappy. I didn't understand what was so different about me and them."

She apologizes as her eyes grow shiny and tears dribble down her face. Toni Rucker swoops in to fold her arms around her oldest daughter.

"What is the difference," she murmurs, Mareshia's head resting on her chest. "There is no difference."

LISTEN: Hear more about the prom on CNN Radio News Day

Mareshia and her friends bucked 40 years of local customs this month by organizing their own integrated prom, a formal dance open to Wilcox County's white, black, Latino and Asian high school students. Organizers, both black and white, said they lost friends in the process - a grim experience in the waning weeks of the school year. It's been hard on the rest of their hometown, too.

When the story erupted on TV and social media, Wilcox County became a symbol of race relations stuck in the past. People around the world heard about the sneers from some classmates, the silence from some adults, the school board that says it supports them but didn't sponsor its own prom. Thousands lashed out at the old tradition or offered up kind words, cash, dresses, a DJ. Stunned, they wanted to know, could this be true? In 2013?

Read the full story

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Filed under: High school • Prom
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. destiny

    ITS THAT TYPE OF RIDICOLOUSE MESS CLOSED MIDED COMMENTS THAT KEEP KIDS THESE DAYS IN SEGRAGETED PROMS. I THINK ALL KIDS SHOULD BE ABLE TO GO TO THEIR PROM WITHOUT GOING WITH THE SAME RACE BUT GOING WITH WHOMEVER THEY CHOOSE
    THANKS PLEASE KEE[ ALL THE NEGATIVE COMMENTS AWAY I REALLY LIKE TINAS COMMENT! FREEDOM OF RACE!

    May 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  2. Willy R.

    Why should we want to have a segregated prom when Martin Luther King and so many others worked so hard to end it?

    May 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  3. Shawn

    Martin, I live in a county that integrated its schools 60 years ago. I'm not sure when proms integrated, but I believe it was soon after, The idea that we would even be discussing such issues here is preposterous. Integration is here - get used to it, even if you are 60 years late to the party.

    May 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  4. Martin

    "Integrated prom", eh? I saw one White male student at the ball. Is that correct? I noted a few White females, with Black dates. Is that a true reflection of the ball's participation or CNN editorial policy? Were there any White male students with Black dates? I never see this. I note the DJ's were Black too..not everybody likes that type of music.

    May 2, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • jgumbrechtcnnCNN

      Hi Martin,
      My observation as the reporter there: There were many black and white students, and several Latino students - some who came in groups, some who came as friends, some who came as dates. The prom took place over six hours, and rarely were the students all in one room - while some danced, others were eating, or spending time with friends in the outdoor area. Unfortunately, we had only one person available to shoot still images AND video, so there was not way to get an all-encompassing visual. We also did not interview or shoot portraits of students who were younger than 18, or whose parents weren't available to give permission. Thanks for reading.

      May 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
      • ALEX

        Jamie, is this last year's or this year? I remember watching a similar video 2 years ago.

        May 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
      • jgumbrechtcnnCNN

        Alex, this prom was this year - the prom organized by white students was April 20, and the integrated prom, which we attended, was April 27. You probably did see a similar video in the last few years - several counties in South Georgia have integrated proms in the last few years, whether privately or through a school-sponsored prom. Integrated proms were also the basis for the recent documentary "Prom Night in Mississippi" and the based-on-reality film "For One Night."

        May 3, 2013 at 10:51 am |
      • pea

        Thank God you're writing about this. I'm still an old folk hippie with a conscience – I still care, and I can still see something honest.

        until I'm senile – pea

        May 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  5. Tina

    It's that type of ridiculous, closed minded comments that keep these kids in segregated proms. The kids who were brave enough to have this combined prom are TODAY'S KIDS. TODAY'S PEOPLE. Don't live in the past. This is not the day of segragation. It isn't blacks and whites. WE THE PEOPLE!

    May 2, 2013 at 7:49 am |