Grads leave lasting legacy: Integrated prom

(CNN) -- On Saturday, 68 seniors will graduate from Wilcox County High School in South Georgia, leaving behind a legacy that could last long after they’ve said their goodbyes: Next year, for the first time, their high school will host a prom.
It’s a new tradition in their small rural community, one they hope will eliminate their county’s custom of private, racially segregated proms.
A small group from 2013’s senior class sparked the idea of an integrated prom this year, bucking 40 years of high school tradition.
    When their county’s racially segregated schools combined in the early 1970s, the school called off its homecoming dance and prom; it was a volatile time at the newly integrated school, alumni said, and parents and school leaders were wary of black and white students attending the same dance. Like in many other Southern communities, Wilcox County students and parents stepped in to plan private, off-site parties, complete with formal gowns, tuxedos, DJs and décor.
    But long after outward racial tension died down, the private, segregated parties in Wilcox County remained -- a quiet reminder of racism, students said.
    "If we're all together and we love each other the way we say we do, then there are no issues,"  integrated prom organizer and Wilcox County senior Mareshia Rucker said during the dance in April. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago."
    Their campaign drew international media attention and an outpouring of online support and donations of money, prom dresses and DJ services. It also drew some criticism from students and parents who liked the old tradition, and community members who worried about the negative light cast on their small town.
    Regardless of the ups and downs, students said, they would have preferred an official school prom instead of a private, integrated event off-campus.
    Next year, it’s happening.
    Superintendent Steve Smith said Friday that the high school’s leadership team polled rising juniors and seniors, and found that most favored an official school prom. Many who voted against it said they were fine with a racially integrated dance, Smith said, but they didn’t like that school rules would apply, unlike at private parties.
    A diverse group of students will lead the prom planning next school year, Smith said, and they’ll remain responsible for deciding a theme, decorations and entertainment.
    They’ll also be responsible for raising money, just as they did for the private proms; the school will not pay for the dance.
    “That’ll be a great experience for our students to work together toward a common goal,” he said.
    Smith expects the first prom to be held in the high school gym. It’s not air-conditioned, he said, but it’s large enough to fit all the students and easier to enforce school rules there. It makes a statement, he said: Wilcox County High School’s prom is for everyone.
    “It helps build school pride a bit,” he said.
    The reaction has been positive, Smith said. He applauds students who organized an integrated prom this year and the faculty who signed on to a start a new prom tradition in 2014.
    “I think everybody knew what the right answer was. People just like to hold on to traditions sometimes,” he said.
    There are no plans to hold a school-sponsored homecoming dance in the fall, Smith said, although he’s open to discussing it.
    Hosting a school prom won’t necessarily make racially segregated private proms go away, Smith said; in several other communities that began hosting school proms in recent years, parents and students still planned private, segregated events outside of school.
    But Smith said he wants the old tradition to fade – and for Wilcox County educators and students get back to the business of teaching, learning and graduating.
      “I think you’ll find these other parties die a slow death,” he said. “I hope that happens.”
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