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Integration finally gets a dance card at Georgia prom

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 2002


Like other spring-giddy graduates across America, high school seniors are ready to be footloose at a prom here in Butler.

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The garlands are hung, the roses bought, the patent leather buffed, and the hair poufed – all in oh-my-gosh anticipation of Prom 2002. Nearly 200 young men and women from Taylor County High School are set to light up the floor to Ja Rule and slow-dance to Faith Hill, as part of this high school ritual.

But today, there's a new twist to this tuxedoed tradition.

Although most of the teens have gone to school together since kindergarten, this evening's fest will mark the first time black and white students have danced together in a formal setting.

Until now, this town had held to a tradition of two separate proms that were organized as private functions and segregated along racial lines.

But tonight's unified event – the result of a 2-to-1 vote by the seniors themselves – hints at the final throes of a dual-prom tradition that was once ubiquitous in the deep South, but today only lingers in a handful of isolated counties.

The students' efforts have put in the spotlight a tradition that, at least to outsiders, may seem to evoke visions of Jim Crow. But those who support tonight's student-planned prom at the Columbus, Ga., Sheraton say it's a sign that an "innocent generation," born around 1984, is crashing old party lines, even in the most forgotten corners of Dixie.

"When I was growing up, I remember seeing the black kids that I played with having to go through the side door of the theater and up into the balcony," says Wayne Byram, a sociologist at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. "We took it as part of the geography of things. We didn't have feelings about it. Now, a lot of these kids, they do develop some feelings about it, begin to question it, and in this case they took the initiative."

Community stalwarts say that the segregated proms here persisted as rote tradition rather than any deep-seated desire to keep the black and white teens separate.

They point out that, rather than being held as formal school functions, they're much in the same league as cotillions, which still remain largely segregated private parties throughout the South, often with distinct sets of rituals. While whites are a narrow majority in Taylor County, black kids make up 55 percent of the school population.

Breaking taboos

As in other corners of the country, interracial dating remains a "tender spot." But parents may not have too much to worry about in that department.

In fact, interracial dating here, students say, is almost non-existent.

Dating's not necessarily what it's about, says senior Heather Robinson. "We go to school together, we work together, so why can't we dance together?"

"It was something we should have done a long time ago, but it was our parents that kept us apart," says Danti Venslowe, a compact, corn-rowed junior.

But this week, as the students rushed to finish decorations and find last-minute dates, their modern-day integration gambit also tested the graces of a Southern town.