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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.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2007



ASHBURN, Ga.

They went to kindergarten together, sharing crayons and sleeping carpets, chocolate milk and peanut butter sandwiches. They navigated the treacherous waters of adolescence, laughing their way through disastrous first dates and drivers ed. They gossiped about teachers, cried over broken hearts, and struggled with algebra.

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For as long as Turner County High School's seniors can remember, they've always been together – black and white, rich and poor. And now less than a month from graduation, they wanted to be together one more time, experiencing one of high school's most sacred traditions: the prom.

In the process, their simple wish would shatter another time-honored tradition in Ashburn, Ga., and change history.

Although segregation ended in this farming community years ago, some say the old ways never truly died. And every spring, while schools around the country planned junior/senior proms, Turner County's parents and students planned two unofficial private proms – one for the white students, and one for the black.

Within the school's hallways, the parties weren't discussed. No posters were hung, no fliers distributed, no tickets sold. But everyone knew. It was so common that it was considered normal here in rural Georgia.

Because the parties are private, no one tracks the number of towns still holding separate proms, but most people here say fewer places seem to be continuing the practice. Still, Ashburn – population 4,400, home of the annual Fire Ant Festival, and the "world's largest peanut" monument – has clung stubbornly to tradition. Saturday night, that custom ended when 150 students gathered in Turner County Civic Center for the first school-sponsored, all-inclusive prom.

***

Mandy Alberson's eyes are shining as she inspects herself in the mirror at His and Hers Hairstyles in downtown Ashburn. Consulting a folded piece of paper, the senior, who is white, compares her tiara-topped tresses to the drawing in her hand. "Is this going to hold?" she wails to stylist Luana Moore. "It's gotta last 'til tomorrow morning for 'Good Morning America!' "

The cellphone in her lap rings. It's James Hall, the senior class president, who is African-American. He's got his own problems. A television crew is following him everywhere he goes, and he's not sure if he and his date will be able to meet Mandy and her date at Applebee's after all. They'll meet up at the prom. "I love that boy," Mandy says, clicking the phone closed.

Giddy with excitement, she explains that she and James have been planning this night since middle school. Even then the two friends knew they wanted one prom for everyone. When the school year began, the four senior class officers – two black and two white – came to principal Chad Stone and asked for his support. To their surprise, the first-year administrator gave it, wholeheartedly, even agreeing to devote $5,000 of his discretionary funds to the cause.

James says that in the past the administration always said there wasn't enough student support for a prom. In fact, the choice was given to the students a few years ago and they voted it down. "They didn't let them know the benefits," James says as he paces outside New Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, waiting for a second limousine to transport a growing number of black students to the prom in style. "It's a better memory this way. Wouldn't you rather remember it with your black and white friends?"

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