Beyond the prom, a town fidgets in the spotlight

"Most discipline problems relate to tardies and matters of the heart, and students see skin color through their parents' eyes." — Statement about Wilcox County High School on the Wilcox County Schools homepage.

ROCHELLE — Quanesha Wallace may be the most popular girl at Wilcox County High School. Last fall, she was elected homecoming queen and wore a $300 dress to cross the football field at halftime to take the crown.

But Wallace didn’t go to the homecoming dance. She thought about trying to buy a ticket, she said, but changed her mind after she heard that a biracial student had been turned down.

Wallace is black. The dance is typically held by and for white students. The school doesn’t officially sponsor it, so administrators say they can’t intervene.

Same with the prom — as much of the world now knows. Although the April 20 dance was an all-white affair, and students were allowed to organize and sell tickets on campus, administrators call it a private party, out of their jurisdiction. Black students have for years also held their own private prom event.

But now school officials and other townspeople are having to defend that practice to reporters from New York to L.A., and beyond — thanks to social media-fueled buzz about this weekend’s integrated prom, organized by Wallace and a handful of other students.

And the folks fielding the questions don’t much like it, being prodded to explain, over and over, that what outsiders might take for racism is just-the-way-it’s-always-been.

“It’s been completely blown out of the water. The media has gotten ahold of it, but nobody here cares … nobody is putting up a barricade to be separatist,” said Brent Peebles, a white 30-something insurance salesman who is one of the few remaining business owners in downtown Rochelle’s main drag.

The separate dances, he said, are purely a matter of “personal preference.”

It’s tradition

Even Wallace, a tall and dimpled senior, said that’s how she took the prospect of being barred from the homecoming dance. “It’s tradition,” she said.

Tradition? When that notion gets voiced in a separate conversation, Toni Rucker, the mother of one of Wallace’s co-organizers, pounces: “Then it’s traditional racism.”

The idea of the integrated prom was born out of a racial healing project spearheaded by Harriet Hollis, a coordinator with the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education.

“(Prom) is one of the racial ills here,” Hollis said. “But in Wilcox … they don’t think they have any issues.”

School Superintendent Steve Smith declined to be interviewed this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But he has publicly acknowledged the absurdity of the issue, telling The New York Times: “It became an embarrassment long ago.”

In an email to the AJC, he said, “I support what these young ladies are doing,” and directed the paper to the district’s website for further insight.

On the homepage, embedded incongruously in a lengthy recitation of the school’s academic and athletic achievements, is this paragraph:

“WCHS is much like any other high school, where the homecoming king and queen are chosen by popular vote (and are allowed to have their picture made together, despite published reports to the contrary!). Most discipline problems relate to tardies and matters of the heart, and students see skin color through their parents’ eyes.”

History of struggle

By some measures, Wilcox County is holding its own. The population, which now stands at a hair above 9,000, has grown modestly over the past two decades. Still, Rochelle’s main block finds nearly as many shuttered businesses as those holding on: a smattering of salons, floral shops, a hot dog joint and the chamber of commerce.

A railroad track runs adjacent to the main road, dividing the town along north-south lines. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you white folk live on the south side, near the high school, while blacks largely live on the north side, a low-lying area prone to flooding.

Jobs are scarce for everyone in this county, which has an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent. An employment coordinator comes to town each Wednesday, but in two years has failed to place one person due to lack of jobs, Peebles said. Less than 10 percent of residents have a college degree, according to the census. More than a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty line.

“You look around here and this town is dead,” said James Holmes III, an African-American man who was in junior high when integration took place. “You might as well dig a hole and get a bulldozer and push it in.”

The biggest employers are the Doster’s Warehouse peanut factory or Wilcox County Schools. Few to no African-Americans are to be found behind counters or desks at the Rochelle post office, bank or police station.

With a student population that is 54 percent white and 41 percent black, just 5 percent of teachers and administrators here are black, according to 2011 data from the Georgia Department of Education.

“For me, the issues go so far beyond the prom, the prom is minute,” said Rochelle City Councilwoman Vickie Kemp, who is African-American. “All of this is very systemic of everything else.”

Brenda Madison, the grandmother of integrated prom organizer Mareshia Rucker, moved her family here from Cobb County in the 1990s. She loves it for the space, the quiet and the land. But rural life has been an adjustment.

“I thought I went back 40 years,” she said.

Not perfect

White residents understand that segregated proms might shock sensibilities in the outside world, but many say the town has been wrongly portrayed.

The prom is planned by juniors, they say, so the senior girls behind the integrated prom — which until recently had been known as the “black prom” — had their chance to make their mark last year. The school has held integrated proms in the past, they add, but few students came.

The school does hold some integrated dances, they note, specifically the military ball. And a Hispanic boy attended this year’s white prom as the date of a white girl.

Besides, some people said, kids are denied tickets to prom for reasons that have nothing to do with race. One man told the story of a white girl who wasn’t allowed to attend because years earlier she danced provocatively at a classmate’s 8th birthday party.

Rochelle City Councilman Wayne McGuinty said there were three proms the year he graduated Wilcox County High in 1979. One was for black students; the other two, both for whites, were held by factions that couldn’t agree on whether to have a deejay or band.

“We’re not perfect here, but we’re not the racist segregationists we’ve been portrayed to be,” he said.

And Peebles, who labeled his town as “backwards,” had this explanation for why the county has nearly two dozen churches: “Because people here don’t get along.”

Beads and sequins

Organizers of this weekend’s integrated prom have been quoted in national newspapers and appeared on TV. Their “Integrated Prom” Facebook fan page has earned nearly 25,000 “likes” since April 3, as well as thousands in donations.

Despite the media swirl, the girls have still found time to be, well, teenage girls. Wallace, Rucker and Stephanie Sinnott screamed and squealed earlier this week when the truck delivering their donated prom dresses arrived.

The friends vow that despite graduating this year, they intend to push for a stronger and better integrated prom in 2014. They’re waiting to see exactly what measure of support they’ll receive from the Wilcox County school board, which has said it will place the 2014 prom on its agenda soon.

That, said Chris Bonner, an African-American Rochelle resident who attended the high school in the 1990s, is “something school officials should’ve taken on forever ago.”

But Kemp, the city councilwoman, worries that things will go back to how they’ve always been unless the community supports the change.

"Just like anything else," she said, "Once the reporters leave and the prom is over and no one talks about it anymore, it will just be as it always has."