Ga. county's last trace of segregation comes to end on students' prom night


BUTLER, Ga. - They arrived with their own and left the same way. But for several hours that glowed as brightly as the girls' sequined dresses and promised to last beyond the return of the boys' rented tuxes, they were simply together.

For a school where every previous prom was actually two - one for the white students and one for the blacks - the mere act of gathering in a single ballroom on Friday night set Taylor County High School's dance apart from the thousands of such dances held across the country during this time of year - not to mention its history.

"This is the best prom ever," Colby Smith yelled over the loud music as she crowded onto the dance floor, "because everybody's here."

At 17, she is at her third prom but the first in which "everybody" is not just her white classmates at Taylor High but the black ones, too. Taylor High is believed to be among the last schools to have clung to the once-common Southern tradition of separate proms, a lingering vestige of segregation.

Over the years, segregated proms have fallen one by one by the wayside. But in tiny Taylor County - population 8,000 - it was a practice entrenched for so long that few thought to question it. Until last fall, when the juniors, who by tradition have been in charge of planning the school's proms, started talking among themselves.

"It just didn't feel right," said student Gerica McCrary.

She was starting to organize the black prom for this year, much as another student, Amber Williams, was getting plans under way for the white prom. Writing one of a series of letters to her black classmates updating them on the prom's progress, McCrary decided to send it to the whites as well. Williams said that white students were also discussing a unified prom, and soon the two groups were working together. The issue of having a single prom was brought before the juniors and seniors, who voted by a 2-to-1 margin to approve it.

Their efforts culminated Friday night: Unlike last year, when the black students went north to Thomaston for their dance and the whites went east to Macon for theirs, all roads led west to Columbus, to the Four Points Sheraton and their school's first integrated prom. The theme: "Making it Last Forever."

Amid a crush of news media drawn to the tradition-shattering event, about 200 students stepped into a ballroom dreamily decorated in silver, blue and black. For all the familiar and kitschy trappings of this springtime ritual - the souvenir glasses, the inevitable boys who forgo black tuxes for white top hats and tails, the parade of stretched-out limos - this was one special prom.

"Just looking at them, you wonder: Why was it so hard to do this?" said Shandra Hill, a 1989 graduate who grew teary-eyed watching her successors do what her own class never considered possible. "It's such a natural thing, when you see them together."

The students, though, wondered why everyone was making such a fuss. As kids who have gone to school together their entire lives, they wondered why anyone would want to split up for the biggest event of the year.

"We've been together since kindergarten," said Nikki Hollis, a black student. "When I get around my classmates, I feel like they're my family. I consider all of them my friends."

While their closest friends tend to be those of their own race - making them no different from most Americans - the students share an ease and familiarity that belies the image many may have of race relations in the Deep South. They joked and gossiped among themselves about who was out last night and how late. Hugs and squeals of "Girl, look at you!" broke out with each spotting of a fine dress. Boys high-fived and nodded approvingly at each other's stylin' touches - the walking stick, the cool shades.

In Butler's small-town, rural setting, people live together in a way that those in a more metropolitan area can avoid if they choose, said Steve Smith, an algebra teacher and coach at the high school.

Unlike a city such as Baltimore, where white flight to the suburbs and private schools has left many area schools in a state of de facto segregation, Taylor County has just one high school. Everyone goes there, and the student body, as a result, is about evenly split - 55 percent black, 45 percent white.

"This is not unusual for them," Smith said earlier in the day as students worked side by side decorating the ballroom, occasionally dashing out together in mixed groups to grab breakfast.

"The problem is in the larger towns - look at L.A. 10 years ago," he said, referring to the race riots that erupted after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating. "It's not in the small towns."

But it's also that small-town mentality, one white student said, that probably kept the proms separate for so long.

"You have people who always lived the same way and know the same people their whole lives," said Lee Dykes. "They don't know any other way."

Taylor County surely has seen nothing like the attention this year's prom brought to its doorstep: Dykes and McCreary, for example, began Friday by giving Katie Couric a live interview by remote for the Today show. By the end of the night, students were barely blinking when someone from CNN or the British Broadcasting Corp. pointed a camera at them.

The news media were not entirely welcome: School officials largely refused to talk, saying the prom was not an officially sanctioned event but a private party held by a group of students. It's a common refrain in the South, a somewhat disingenuous hair-splitting, some say, that allowed the dances to be segregated in a way that would usually be prohibited for a public school event.

Taylor High maintains that liability issues are behind the decision not to sponsor the dance: With no facility in Butler to handle a prom, students drive a long distance for the dance - almost 50 miles this year - and the school could be held responsible for damages if anyone has an accident along the way.

The school's unease over the issue of an interracial prom is perhaps inevitable as the South - and the country as a whole - continues to wrestle with issues of black and white. When it comes to integration, a prom may seem a trivial matter compared to, say, issues of housing or employment. And yet it strikes at the heart of why many still fear integration, said University of South Carolina history professor Dan Carter.

"It's important symbolically. With a prom, you're moving beyond the public sphere and into talking about something really intimate," said Carter, who specializes in the history of U.S. racial relations.

"That was originally the whole terror of integration in the 1950s and '60s, the most emotional issue: You start going to school together, you'd end up having interracial dating and then marriage and children."

The fear of racial mixing was so strong that when Taylor County was forced to integrate its schools, it separated the boys and girls into different facilities.

While few today are willing to publicly voice their opposition to the prom - local TV stations did find an occasional old-timer willing to grouse about the potential for the dance to lead to interracial coupling - there are also those who warn not to make too much of the ground-breaking event. For one thing, next year's students could very well vote to revert to separate proms. And, for another, the coming together for one night may be just that: one night.

Even the mayor of Butler acknowledges that his town's neighborhoods are largely segregated. And this year's prom-goers seemed to spend much of the night - pre-dinners and post-parties - among their own race. And finally, the school retains at least one wince-inducing practice: The "senior superlative" awards, such as most-likely-to-succeed, still are divided into racial categories.

Still, there is a sense here of a school working through this moment in its history, and teachers such as Steve Smith see the dual awards as a way to include rather than a way to divide.

"It's an opportunity to give out 40 awards instead of 20," Smith said. "So again, it looks racial, but it isn't."

The students were happy to float out of the ballroom into the night, looking toward the future rather than the past.

"I hope people will say, 'Things went so well, let's do it again like this,'" Williams said.

"We - and I say, we - are just so happy right now," McCrary said. "I just don't want any more sides. I don't want any more boundaries."

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