Prom is racially integrated as one Georgia county leaves a barrier behind

Wilcox County in Georgia will have an integrated prom for high school students Saturday, after years of separate events for whites and blacks.

For one Georgia county, this is an end-of-an-era moment, a night when high school students can attend a racially integrated prom.

On Saturday, students of all races from Wilcox County High School will party and dance together, after years of separate proms for whites and blacks.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story wrongly stated that the integrated prom would be the county's only one.]

In that county, as in some other parts of America’s South, separate proms – organized privately rather than by public schools – have lingered for decades, long after schools were racially integrated.

But in an era when young Americans widely accept and embrace the idea of dating and marrying across racial lines, it’s a tradition that’s steadily fading out.

About 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of different race (or ethnicity, in the cases where Latino and non-Latino unite). That number, drawn from Census records and reported last year by the Pew Research Center, compares to 6.7 percent of new marriages in 1980.

Nationwide polling by Pew has also found that nearly 9 in 10 whites and African Americans in the “millennial generation” (under 30 as of 2010) say they “would be fine” with a family member marrying across racial lines.

“The tale of four pals, two black, two white, planning an integrated prom [in Wilcox County] has drawn worldwide attention,” writes blogger Maureen Downey for the website of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“Proms in some South Georgia districts have been private events held off campus,” she explains. “The proms moved off campus in response to integration. In the early days of court-ordered integration, some communities did not want to see race mixing so school proms ceased and separate private black and white proms became the norm.”

In some cases, the inertia of tradition has held on even as social norms have been evolving. And moving proms back to being school-orchestrated events sometimes stirs its own controversy, with students worried about stricter rules and school officials wary of legal liability issues, Ms. Downey says.

For the students at Wilcox County High, the event this weekend will still be a private one. And some of the school's white students stuck with tradition and held their own prom April 20. But this Saturday the races will be on the dance floor together.

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