April 5th, 2013
09:40 AM ET

'New tradition' for Georgia students: Their first racially integrated prom

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By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - As Quanesha Wallace remembers, it was around this time last year when the idea first came up at Wilcox County High School. It was nothing big, just chatter about prom, school, what comes next, what they'd change.

If things were different, someone said, we'd all go to the same prom.

For as long as anyone could remember, students in their South Georgia community went to separate proms, and homecoming dances, too. White students from Wilcox County attend one. Black students, another. They’re private events organized by parents and students, not the school district. Schools have long been desegregated, but in Wilcox County, the dances never changed.WGXA

The friends all agreed they'd go to an integrated prom, Quanesha said, and when they asked, others said, "Yeah, I'd go, too."

"We are all friends," Quanesha's friend, Stephanie Sinnot, told CNN affiliate WGXA-TV in Macon, Georgia. "That's just kind of not right that we can't go to prom together."

So now it's April, and prom is coming up, and these black and white friends, longtime pals who go to classes together and play sports together and hang out together, are going to prom together, too. For the first time, students are organizing an integrated dance, one that welcomes any of Wilcox County High's 400 students.

"This is going to be the biggest prom ever to come through Wilcox County," said Quanesha, one of the event's organizers.

The theme will be "Masquerade Ball in Paris." There will be an Eiffel Tower and Mardi Gras-style masks, dancing, flowers, catered food and a clubhouse in nearby Cordele. They're expecting gowns, ties, manicures, up-dos, sparkle. Quanesha has a date, although she hasn't decided on a dress.

"If you want to get fancy, get fancy," said Quanesha, 18. "If you don't, that's fine."

Attendees will vote on a king and queen but also cutest couple, best smile, best dressed. They'll do a recognition ceremony for a classmate who died. They'll start a new prom tradition: a unity toast.

By Thursday afternoon, about 50 tickets had sold for the integrated prom. They're aiming for 100. They're not sure they'll make it.

Not everybody is excited about the idea. Posters for the integrated prom were torn off the walls of the high school. Students who usually plan dances didn't get involved with this one. Nothing was different about this year's homecoming dances: Quanesha, the queen, is black. The king, white. She thought she might get an invite to the other prom, but they went to separate dances, and appear in separate yearbook photos, she said.

In a statement posted on the school district’s website Thursday, Wilcox County Superintendent Steve Smith stressed the segregated proms aren’t organized by the school.

When students approached him about hosting an integrated prom, Smith wrote, he and the county’s board of education “not only applauded their idea, but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and nondiscriminatory.

“I fully support these ladies, and I consider it an embarrassment to our schools and community that these events have portrayed us as bigoted in any way.”

The statement was no longer on the schools' website Thursday night, but a new statement posted by Friday morning said the high school's principal "will place the 2014 Prom on its agenda for its next meeting."

Smith did not return CNN's phone calls or e-mails.

Wilcox County is not the only place with a racially segregated prom, nor is it the only one that's attracted widespread attention in recent years. In the 2009 documentary “Prom Night in Mississippi,” director Paul Saltzman followed the preparations for the first integrated prom in Charleston, Mississippi. Actor Morgan Freeman, a native of the area, offered in 1997 to cover the cost if the school board would hold an integrated prom, but the offer wasn’t accepted till 2008.

Students and parents say it's hard to spark conversation that breaks what's now seen as tradition.

"I've lived here all my life. Nobody pushed the issue. This year, these children - we didn’t have any idea it was going to go as it did," Quanesha's mother, Linda Wallace, said Thursday. "Before we knew it, it was like a wildfire."

Indeed, Wilcox County's integrated prom has gotten a lot of attention this week. Schools in the county of about 9,000 residents are on spring break, but while classes were out, the prom story appeared on the local news, and the story spread. They'd been raising money for the prom all year, and some donations helped, but they've picked up a lot in the last few days. The prom's Facebook page drew thousands of fans since it was set up Wednesday.

Most of the comments are positive. "Your efforts will open the eyes of many. I applaud your courage and hopefulness. Continue your fight for change this year and every year, not just in your school but throughout your community. It just takes one person to change the world," one person wrote.

"You are civil rights leaders of 2013!" another wrote. "I am so encouraged by what you are doing. I believe that your generation has the power to make things better. Keep going and never give up."

Still, Quanesha is a little nervous about returning to school Monday. A lot of parents and students support them, she said, but she knows some don't. Why else, after all these years, were they still holding dances that segregated white and black students?

"I’m all about sticking together, reasoning with each other," Quanesha said. "We have very strong-minded students at Wilcox County. I hope they’re there to back each other up."

The friends and organizers are trying to enjoy it. Soon, most of them will be graduating. Quanesha plans to go to college to study psychology. She said she's not going too far from home for now. She wants to make sure the prom keeps going, and she can come back to help encourage the underclassmen who will have to take it on next.

"I don't want to just leave them hanging. I know we're going to leave them a little money," Quanesha said.

"New tradition. Leave them a little something so it won't be so hard for them like it was hard for us."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNschools.

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Filed under: Extracurricular • High school • Parents • Prom • Students
soundoff (1,154 Responses)
  1. Ashili

    Thats so stupied to do seperated proms whats wrong with the parents and students these days to come up with with that irresponsible idea smh yeah IRRESPONSIBLE!!!

    April 19, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  2. janroc

    I thought I was reading Ripley's Believe or Not. In this day and age to hold two separate proms is preposterous.

    April 19, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  3. AndrewMcCrew

    Would somebody – please – just applaude these jung people for changing the tradition! The shame is on all the proms and dances held until last year. Everybody who organised and attended the separate events in the past has to be embarassed for the rest of their life that they did not have niether the vision nor the courage.
    Get your priorities right!

    April 19, 2013 at 5:47 am |
  4. Tristin D

    How backwards some parts of the USA unfortunately are, in New Zealand we have been integrated with our native people the Maoris since the historic signing of the 1840 Treaty.

    April 19, 2013 at 4:21 am |
    • James Laos

      ...are you kidding me? In the time I've spent in New Zealand, living in a district with nearly 0% white people in the neighbourhood I haven't seen any efforts made by the government to raise living quality or solving the drug & alcohol issue. Segregation though is another level of stupidity still beiing displayed by some parts of the U.S.

      April 19, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  5. fodboldministeren

    When you think about what Rosa Parks had to go through I am amazed this is going on in 2013. Disgusting!

    April 19, 2013 at 4:19 am |
  6. Bill

    Hard to believe this still goes on, what....40-50 years after the fact of integration in some of these areas. Well, regardless, I hope that the integrated prom is a success. Best of luck.

    April 19, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  7. Just a thought?

    I have 4 children and in my home they have been taught that everyone is the same, and they are welcome to have friends over no matter their race. This fight has been ongoing and may never really be over, you cant change someones view points no matter how ignorant you find them to be! We are welcome to voice our opinions though and one I have recently heard still makes me wonder...She pointed out that it's always been "white v. black", but is that always just the way it is every single time or does it go both ways? She pointed out that they have BET and they do not have many "white" people in their movies and she doesnt allow her children to watch that channel because of this. She says she doesnt discriminate BUT she doesnt see why the finger is always pointed at us she feels that it obviously must go both ways?...She ask me a question that I had no answer to, what happened if 10 years ago we as the "whites" had our own channel something like BET, would people being calling discrimination? I had never realy thought of this until she pointed it out. Its really a touchy subject and nobdy will ever have all the answers but Im truly happy that these children will be able to finally experience the same education and events that my children will do and my question to this is why did it take until 2013 to do this? The school says they are not responsible so that means that the parents are raising them to have these viewpoints...is this really fair to the children? Why did the school let this continue for so long? I dont think we will ever have answers to any of these questions, despite the struggles throughout our history. Maybe today although most of us dont want to see it maybe more people than we thought still feel color is important...

    April 18, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • Jacob

      What an incoherent, rambling post

      April 19, 2013 at 5:42 am |
  8. GG

    This is shameful we should be beyond this! so sad

    April 18, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  9. GSU

    Most of these people have no idea what they are talking about. I have lived in Georgia my entire life, and the only time I have experienced any sort of racism was when some black guys yelled at me and called me a "white @ss Mother-effer" for talking to a black girl, and that girl went on to reprimand the guy. I also found it quite humorous that as I was reading this article and comments, there were white guys and black guys bro-hugging, and white and black girls hugging and talking right in front of me. The south is a very hospitable place, and race is only an issue that comes up when the media finds a story to make a big deal about. There is racism everywhere, and it's no worse in the south than anywhere else in the country.

    It just seems lot of people in the north that I have talked to (not making a blanket statement) seem to have an elitist mindset that they are somehow superior to, or more intelligent than, anyone from the south, when that's not the case at all. Having that sort of mindset is a form of racism in its own right. Actually, I have some black friends that moved here from New York, and they have only had praise for the state because, in their own words, “people are so much nicer here than in NYC”.

    Anyway, we really do live in a great country. Yeah, it has its faults, but those aren't going to be fixed by name-calling on news articles (from CNN no less) over the internet. If you really want to make a difference, take action. My class at GSU, one of the most diverse universities in the country, in the past few weeks has raised over $10,000 for charities ranging from helping breast cancer patients, schools and orphanages in Kenya, people suffering from cerebral palsy, feeding and helping homeless children, scholarships for low income Latino communities, and animal shelters, just to name a few. If you really want to see change, get out from behind your computer and do something about it.

    April 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • D

      Well while some of the things that you say are true but I have to disagree as a black person that was raised in the north and has lived in the south for a while. while there is racism everywhere, I would have to say, especially as black person, that it is way worse in the south compared to most of the north. I went to school in south GA and please believe that old JIM CROW sentiment is still alive in many small cities and towns.
      However I do agree that many people of all colors can guilty of discrimination, lets not pretend that it occurs to equal extents. When your in ATL its totally different. your in a diverse city that is way more tolerant than many pockets of the more rural south. And again, I really want to stress that I do believe that all people can feel that affects of racial bigotry. but, if you were a person of color in the south and confronted with the daily and life long obstacles that come just because of your ethnicity you would have a TOTALLY different perspective!!! This town needs to step into the twenty first century its a damn shame!! WE ARE ALL A PART OF THE HUMAN RACE!! after al it is 2013!!! SMFH!!

      April 18, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • Jolisa

      I just want to say that I find the claims of people trying to project this idea that racism is long over and gone to be preposterous. Of course, if you come to the Black Mecca of Atlanta, then you'll find that the racism that's present will be less extreme simply because there are so many more black people than you'll find in the average setting. Also, you see the dynamic where the communities are completely separated. As a black girl in Atlanta, all my life I've only gone to school with black kids. My onle extensive encounters in my day to day life in Atlanta with anyone that wasn't black have been with two white kids. Yes, I admit; the two of them , in each case being the only white person on the room, exhibited no racist qualities. In the rurals where progress has been much slower, unfortunately racism is very real (speaking on simply the social level and not focusing on it in the work force and its effects) . These few stories that become sensations are not the outliers; rather they are one of many instances that just haven't gotten enough publicity to become an issue that attracts the attention of the public. I'm proud of what those kids are doing. It's a step. But consider this; that is an entire town. They have to fight the town to get an integrated prom off the ground...because many of those town members are racist, or see nothing wrong with the idea of the town being integrated Do you believe that this town and this town alone has developed in its own little bubble of isolation since the civil rights movement? This single town is the place in the country where all the racists and bigots have decided to live? Well what about Trevon Martin(R.I.P.) ; what about those 3 Black boys shot in Texas by some trashy men with nothing better to do than hate? What about the countless instances of police brutality? Or the targeting of Blacks and Latinos in the New York stop and frisks... Anyone who says that racism is long over and dead is in denial. They desperately need to wake up.

      April 18, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • O

      Thats wrong. As a black person living in the south my entire life I will be the first to tell you RACE IS AN ISSUE EVERYWHERE IN THE SOUTH. It does not matter where you go in the south there is still a since of I don't like you because you are black and I dont like you because you are white. Race plays a huge part. As a matter of fact my fiance' and I can not tell her family that we are engaged yet because I am black. ITS STILL AN ISSUE

      April 18, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  10. jax

    What a shame its 2013!! I bet there are still more stories like this happening out there in the US and A...

    April 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  11. Jackson

    This just goes to show you can change laws but you can't change people. That goes for BOTH sides people..

    April 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
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