Ga. county's last trace of segregation comes to end on students' prom night

Taylor County teens vote for integration this year

May 05, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BUTLER, Ga. - They arrived with their own and left the same way. But for several hours that glowed as brightly as the girls' sequined dresses and promised to last beyond the return of the boys' rented tuxes, they were simply together.

For a school where every previous prom was actually two - one for the white students and one for the blacks - the mere act of gathering in a single ballroom on Friday night set Taylor County High School's dance apart from the thousands of such dances held across the country during this time of year - not to mention its history.

"This is the best prom ever," Colby Smith yelled over the loud music as she crowded onto the dance floor, "because everybody's here."

At 17, she is at her third prom but the first in which "everybody" is not just her white classmates at Taylor High but the black ones, too. Taylor High is believed to be among the last schools to have clung to the once-common Southern tradition of separate proms, a lingering vestige of segregation.

Over the years, segregated proms have fallen one by one by the wayside. But in tiny Taylor County - population 8,000 - it was a practice entrenched for so long that few thought to question it. Until last fall, when the juniors, who by tradition have been in charge of planning the school's proms, started talking among themselves.

"It just didn't feel right," said student Gerica McCrary.

She was starting to organize the black prom for this year, much as another student, Amber Williams, was getting plans under way for the white prom. Writing one of a series of letters to her black classmates updating them on the prom's progress, McCrary decided to send it to the whites as well. Williams said that white students were also discussing a unified prom, and soon the two groups were working together. The issue of having a single prom was brought before the juniors and seniors, who voted by a 2-to-1 margin to approve it.

Their efforts culminated Friday night: Unlike last year, when the black students went north to Thomaston for their dance and the whites went east to Macon for theirs, all roads led west to Columbus, to the Four Points Sheraton and their school's first integrated prom. The theme: "Making it Last Forever."

Amid a crush of news media drawn to the tradition-shattering event, about 200 students stepped into a ballroom dreamily decorated in silver, blue and black. For all the familiar and kitschy trappings of this springtime ritual - the souvenir glasses, the inevitable boys who forgo black tuxes for white top hats and tails, the parade of stretched-out limos - this was one special prom.

"Just looking at them, you wonder: Why was it so hard to do this?" said Shandra Hill, a 1989 graduate who grew teary-eyed watching her successors do what her own class never considered possible. "It's such a natural thing, when you see them together."

The students, though, wondered why everyone was making such a fuss. As kids who have gone to school together their entire lives, they wondered why anyone would want to split up for the biggest event of the year.

"We've been together since kindergarten," said Nikki Hollis, a black student. "When I get around my classmates, I feel like they're my family. I consider all of them my friends."

While their closest friends tend to be those of their own race - making them no different from most Americans - the students share an ease and familiarity that belies the image many may have of race relations in the Deep South. They joked and gossiped among themselves about who was out last night and how late. Hugs and squeals of "Girl, look at you!" broke out with each spotting of a fine dress. Boys high-fived and nodded approvingly at each other's stylin' touches - the walking stick, the cool shades.

In Butler's small-town, rural setting, people live together in a way that those in a more metropolitan area can avoid if they choose, said Steve Smith, an algebra teacher and coach at the high school.

Unlike a city such as Baltimore, where white flight to the suburbs and private schools has left many area schools in a state of de facto segregation, Taylor County has just one high school. Everyone goes there, and the student body, as a result, is about evenly split - 55 percent black, 45 percent white.

"This is not unusual for them," Smith said earlier in the day as students worked side by side decorating the ballroom, occasionally dashing out together in mixed groups to grab breakfast.

"The problem is in the larger towns - look at L.A. 10 years ago," he said, referring to the race riots that erupted after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating. "It's not in the small towns."

But it's also that small-town mentality, one white student said, that probably kept the proms separate for so long.

"You have people who always lived the same way and know the same people their whole lives," said Lee Dykes. "They don't know any other way."

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