In 1970, Barbara King’s mom made a trip to the city for a ruffled peach gown for her daughter’s junior prom, a formal dance in the school gym. King attended Excelsior, a school for all of Wilcox County’s Black students. White students went to a school down the road in Rochelle, the county’s largest city.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision had struck down the legal basis for “separate but equal” schools in 1954, but state politics had stalled integration so long, King never thought it would happen. Excelsior had loving teachers, a new football team, a competitive a cappella choir and, naturally, its own prom.
But before school let out for the summer, they learned Excelsior would close. The Black students would integrate into the all-White Wilcox County schools. They cried, she says, out of sadness and fear.
“The Black kids, we’d heard horror stories about the White school and the White kids,” she says. “We did not want to go.”
That fall, tension between Black and White students sizzled in the hallways, King says. In that volatile atmosphere, students learned there would be no homecoming dance. Before long, they understood there would be no prom either.
It was a blow to everyone, King says. She doesn’t remember any proms or private, formal parties happening — it never occurred to them to plan a dance outside the gym. Integration was painful, but it would get easier.
“I always felt that we were robbed,” says King, who now lives in Arizona. “It was just devastating.”
She didn’t realize that tumultuous year might have been the kernel of the county’s long tradition of segregated proms. She graduated, left Wilcox County and assumed the big dances were revived a few years later.
King only learned the proms remained segregated when her niece, a Wilcox County student, told her about the plan for an integrated prom. Forty years after the struggle to integrate schools, she was shocked to realize kids still fought to integrate their social lives. On the Excelsior Facebook page, which she runs from her home in Arizona, she posted dozens of news stories about the integrated prom and put out calls to donate money.
“I think, deep down, it was my way of having a prom I never had,” she says.
When she thinks back to 1971 now, she believes they could’ve had a nice prom if they’d been given the chance. It might have meant white students on one side of the gym and black students on another, but they would have danced.
Why, she wonders, should today’s students fight the same ugly battles they did? Maybe, it’s just been too long to remember.
“If there’s something that you’re born into,” she says, “you think it’s normal.”
‘Picking up the pieces’
“Normal” for Rochelle is the quiet strip of hair salons and flower shops. Its murals in blue and gold, the colors for the Wilcox County High School Patriots. It’s generations that stick close to home, even when jobs are sparse.
The unemployment rate is 12.3%, far higher than the nation’s 7.6%, and the median income is $31,712. Workers farm, process peanuts, teach kids at school or cook for them in the cafeteria. Some of the county’s 9,000 residents commute about 20 miles to Cordele or even 45 miles to Tifton just to keep a paycheck coming.
People here will talk about jobs and the economy — they know that’s a problem. Race? Not so much.
“Nobody wants to be called a racist,” says lifelong Wilcox County resident Melissa Davis, 39.
She and her husband run Skin Deep Tattoos and Piercings in Rochelle. Christian imagery is popular among their clients — Jesus’ face, crosses — and American Indian symbols.
The county is about 62% White, 35% Black, 3% Latino. On the 2010 Census, Asians and American Indians hardly register. Diverse customers come to every shop in Rochelle, Davis says, but if the town has a reputation for racism, how would that hurt business?
After all the coverage about the prom, it stings to overhear insults at the store, or read them online and know who they’re about. Outsiders don’t see how people rally in hard times, she said. Her neighbors give generously and buy endless plates of barbecue and beans to support each other’s causes.
Personally, she supports an integrated prom. She had a great time at her own segregated prom about 20 years ago, but it didn’t make much sense to her then, she said. Someday, she hopes her 15-year-old son attends a school-sponsored prom that’s open to everybody. But she can understand why so few people want to talk about it.”These young girls, I applaud them in one sense because they were willing to do something, but then I look at them and think to myself, there is such a better way of doing this than going to the media,” Davis says. “They’re going to graduate. They’re going to be leaving this little town…we’re not. We’re going to be sitting here picking up the pieces for years.”
Harriet Hollis, the racial healing coordinator for the nonprofit Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, says media attention was necessary to start the conversation about the prom, and disparities in schools and the workforce.
“I can’t go in talking about ‘racial healing,'” Hollis says. “People won’t call me back.”
She helped the teens coordinate the integrated prom and hates that people feel they were portrayed incorrectly. But it’s difficult to raise awareness when people are afraid to lose customers, offend neighbors or be ostracized at church. Talking about race in a small town is a quick way to risk everything.
“You realize it takes courage to do this kind of stuff,” she remembers telling the teens planning the integrated prom. “You’re going to get pushback. You’re going to get teachers who are not going to be happy, and classmates who don’t want you to do it.”
They told her, “‘This can happen. We can do this.'”