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Louisiana high school to integrate prom, but some want to sit this dance out

BASTROP, LA. — BASTROP, La. -- The vote was close and the opposition persistent, but students in this northern Louisiana mill town have finally done away with one of the last vestiges of segregation in their high school.

They voted for an integrated school prom, 240-229.

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But that has not prevented some students from seeking other ways to keep the tradition going.

The narrow decision Dec. 11 for an integrated dance comes 21 years after desegregation brought blacks and whites together in the classrooms of Bastrop High School. For Bastrop students today -- half of them black, half white -- integration has been a fact of life since kindergarten.

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But not at the prom -- until Stacey Katz and Robin Holton made it an issue.

The 17-year-old seniors are honors students, close friends and co-captains of the cheerleading squad. Stacey is white and Robin is black. Together they made history at Bastrop High.

"All the other schools around here have black-and-white proms," Stacey said. "We just thought it was the right thing to do."

"It was time to come up with the times," Robin agreed.

But change wasn't easy or painless.

It began in September, when Robin, one of two black seniors on the homecoming court, decided to attend the homecoming dance. The dance had been announced at school. She and Stacey, who also was named to the court, went shopping and bought new dresses for the big event.

On the day before the dance, Robin's plans were thwarted.

"They said it was just for whites," she recalled.

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At Bastrop, the school doesn't sponsor dances. Most are private functions organized by the white prom committee, which consists of white juniors who are helped by their parents. A black prom committee, organized by black teachers, puts together a senior prom for black students, but it doesn't hold other events.

When Robin complained about homecoming, she said, the white prom committee told her nothing could be done: The homecoming dance was going to be held at the local Moose lodge, which excludes blacks.

The two girls were appalled. Blacks constitute about half the cheerleading squad, band and homecoming court. The football team is mostly black.

The seniors started with the white principal, then went up the ladder: to the white superintendent and the Morehouse Parish School Board, which has eight white members and three blacks. Even if it was too late to integrate homecoming, they decided to try for an integrated prom.

"They said if they could cheer together, go to class together, cry together, eat lunch together, they couldn't understand why they couldn't party together," recalled Frankie Conway, the black school board member the seniors approached for help.

But this was an idea many in the older generation were not willing to embrace.

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Surrounded by fields of cotton and rice and forests of pine, Bastrop is a city of 15,000 people where uptown is mostly white and downtown is mostly black. Residents work together at the town's paper mill and garment factory, but socializing between the races still gets second looks.

Even so, Carl Long, president of the school board, and six other board members voted in November to let Bastrop students decide for themselves. Blacks in the community were far more supportive than whites, said Mr. Long, who is white.

Mr. Long said he did not think it would work. "It's a good idea -- in another place," he said. "People aren't ready for that in Bastrop. It's not our custom down here to have integrated dances."

The attitude of their elders was echoed at Bastrop High. The election was close, probably made more so because of a feud that was escalating at the same time between black basketball players and their white coach. Black parents, who felt the coach treated their sons abusively, had asked that the coach step down. But the school board supported him.

By the time of the election, racial tension was at a peak. Some parents told their children not to vote for integration. Many students, teachers and administrators described the reluctance to integrate the prom as merely a matter of blacks and whites not liking the same music.

On voting day, even Robin and Stacey doubted the measure would pass. But one by one, the school's juniors and seniors closed the curtains in borrowed voting booths and pulled levers -- in favor of integration, by a slim 11 votes.

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Now the school will organize its first prom, and the prom will be integrated. But the conflict's not over. The white prom committee has said it will hold its own private white-only "spring formal."

In the school library one recent afternoon, where a group of five white students sat at a table, Jennifer Spicer, 15, said she thought the dance was "just trouble. They're going to get in fights."

"I'm against it because I couldn't stand it if one of them said to my girlfriend, 'I want to dance,' " said Robby Wallace, 17. "I heard a bunch of them say, 'Yeah, we're going to dance with them white girls.' "

Kimberly Ely, 15, firmly disagreed. "I think it's dumb not to have an integrated dance. We'll have to do it later in life anyways."

Jennifer, Robby and two others said that if they went to a prom, they would go to the white-only spring formal, which they agreed was really a white prom.

"It ain't that I just don't like them," said Robby. "It's just that some of them's smart."

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Kimberly interjected, "We say we're not prejudiced, but if a white person smarts off, we might not like them but we don't hate them."

"It's just that it's new," Robby reflected. "They've been doing it for years and years and years, and now they want to change it."

Other students said the change was logical at a school where so much is integrated and students generally get along.

Kim Wilhite and Julie Marley, both black seniors, rattled off ways to solve the music dilemma: alternate between "black" and "white" music, play a song request from each student. It didn't have to be a problem, they agreed.

"If we would do more together, I feel we would understand each other and eliminate some of the racism in this country," said Blaine Whorton, a white senior.

Down the road, there may be an integrated, school-sponsored homecoming dance, said School Superintendent Michael Faulk. "I think that if ever you're going to have a school spirit and a unity of purpose, students should do things together," he said.

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Even if it takes a few years for some to warm up to the idea, Robin and Stacey are optimistic that students will come around. They say most students at their school get along well; many, black and white, overcame their parents' opposition to the integrated prom.

"I think the parents have a lot to do with this," said Stacey. "They don't know. They should see us sitting together in class."

"Yeah," Robin agreed, looking at her friend. "They think we don't get along, but they should see us."


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