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.
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?"
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.
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.