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A prom breaks a color barrier

A school in Ashburn, Ga., holds its first prom where blacks and whites mingle to music from country to hip-hop.

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Tameka Jones graduated from Turner County in 1995. She says her class wanted to have the prom together, but the administration said it would be too difficult to have music that would please everyone. In the end, two separate proms were held as usual. Jones attended the blacks-only prom at a motel in Cordele, 30 miles away.

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She says while she supports tonight's event, it's going to take a lot to heal race relations in Ashburn, a town where people still refer to the railroad tracks separating the white and black neighborhoods as "the line." She points out that just last week, a group of white students held a private prom at a nearby marina, heedless of this week's prom, which had been heavily announced and heralded by what the local weekly newspaper called a "media storm."

James blames much of the attitude on parents. "Some of my friends have told me their parents won't let them cross the tracks to come to my house, and it kind of hurts my feelings, but it's their parents," he says. "All they can do is try to educate them."

Mandy says it's also a class issue. "The black kids and the 'normal' white kids, we're all for the prom," she says. "It's the upper-class preppy kids that don't want it together." She says her mother, Turner County probate judge Penny Thomas, raised her to be open-minded and loyal to her friends, regardless of skin color or social status. "It doesn't matter to me – you can be purple for all I care," she says. "I will stand up in a heartbeat for somebody. That's just what friends are."

***

Outside the civic center, the crowd thickens. This year's theme is "Breakaway," and students seem ready to do just that. Oblivious to the camera crews filming their every move, they chatter and preen, waiting to slip behind the shimmering blue curtain into a tropical paradise resplendent with Hawaiian colors and throbbing with music that veers from country to hip-hop.

As Turner County Schools Superintendent Ray Jordan scans the crowd, he's visibly pleased with the turnout. Of the school's 174 juniors and seniors, 150 glide across the floor here tonight. He says some of those may be underclassmen or students from other schools, but it's a start.

"I've anticipated this day for quite a while, and felt this was what we needed to do," Mr. Jordan says. "I don't think the event would have been successful if I had just mandated it." A lifelong resident of Ashburn and superintendent for five years, Jordan says he knows of schools still holding separate proms, but he thinks it's fading away, finally. In 1977, when he graduated, no one knew any better. "It was just the norm," he says of the whites-only prom he attended. "It was what everybody was doing."

Principal Stone says that will no longer be the case at Turner County. Though the students this year had to ask for the prom, next year it will just happen. "As long as I'm here, we're going to do one, and I plan to be here," he says, a boyish grin spreading across his face before he politely excuses himself to duck back inside among the writhing bodies.

With a mixture of pride and awe, students describe the scene unfolding on the floor: everyone on their feet, dancing. White students dancing with black students, black students dancing with white. Streamers hanging from the ceiling. A sea of color cascading down. A wall of color, at least on this night, in this venue, broken.

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