Integration finally gets a dance card at Georgia prom

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

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.

Under the scrutiny of national media, the integrated prom is unearthing ancient fault lines in a town otherwise so peaceful that orange-garbed county prisoners get their visiting hour on the front stoop of the jail. At one point, a frustrated student hisses at an unwelcome reporter: "It's just a prom!"

Still, the dance is talk of a town whose brick square has a monument to "our boys in gray." In this tradition-conscious county of 8,800, where farms grow everything from watermelons to onions and supermarkets still have hand-scrawled signs, an older generation seems almost resigned to the evening's portent. Black and white teens are an innocent generation, says Ruth Turk, an octogenarian who remembers her doctor father treating wounded race rioters in nearby Darien County, in the 1930s. "This generation, they've never seen no race riots up close," she says.

A generational divide

But their efforts of unification threaten closely held sensibilities in both the white and black communities, Ms. Turk continues. What few outsiders seem to realize, she says, is that there's a difference between voluntary segregation and discrimination.

"I just think they'd be happier if they kept them separate," she says. "But if they're the ones who want to do it, I'm sure they'll get along."

Turk says she told her granddaughter, Melissa, a junior, to follow her heart, hold her chin high – and "be a lady."

Locals admit that while there is some resistance to the idea of a mixed prom, it tends to be limited to an older generation.

At the Taylor farm store, one employee, like many in town, is reluctant to comment on the touchy subject. His buddy later whispers: "Don't get him started. I've got to work with him the rest of the afternoon."

Still, economic buoyance for blacks and a centuries-long shared Southern existence has all but worn down the teeth of social segregation, says Mr. Byram.

"Often, it's not that we want to necessarily go out to dinner or marry someone, but we do want to go to school together or work together," he says.

"Over time, people just began to realize how similar they were and maybe this wasn't such a big deal."

Besides checking out each other's dance moves, it turns out there are more mundane advantages for students of both races to having just one prom. For one thing, it's made it possible to plan the swankiest Taylor County do yet. Students found that photographers and other vendors were more ready to deal with the larger group.

Melding of traditions

Still, it's been a challenge to please everyone. After 30 years, the two proms had taken on distinctly different airs: The white prom a bit diffident, not as much dancing, with everybody breaking up into cliques for the "après-prom" parties; black prom-goers, meanwhile, tended to throng together and keep dancing all night, as a group.

"I never really knew what all went on at their proms," says Christina, a recent grad who is going to her third prom with her senior boyfriend. "All I know is that our prom pictures all look the same."

The theme for the prom is, "Make It Last Forever." Yet all the attention over the affair has, in fact, put next year's prom in question. "The rumor now is that they may not do it again next year," says Ms. Robinson, the senior. "Friday's prom is a real test, to see if it'll work."

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