New traditions

Veteran educator Henry Walding used to joke that if he ever became a high school principal, he would do away with prom. Now principal of Montgomery County High School in Mount Vernon, Walding will spend Saturday night chaperoning his school’s first official prom in nearly a half-century.

And the prom is integrated, which wasn’t always the case in this small southeast Georgia district where white and black students once attended separate proms.

In the aftermath of 1970s-era integration, many small-town Southern white parents didn’t want race mixing at social events, while administrators feared proms would exacerbate tensions around the closing and merging of schools. Montgomery is among the school districts in the South where proms went from school-based functions to segregated private affairs, held off campus without any school funds

For the most part, these apartheid proms are gone. But not everywhere.

Wilcox County High School in the South Georgia town of Rochelle, 20 miles from Cordele, finds itself in the unflattering eye of a social media storm after reports of its segregated proms hit the newspapers, TV stations and Facebook. Four girls in the senior class, best friends since fourth grade, launched a Facebook page to promote an integrated prom and have won international applause and donations. The April 27 prom is now free to Wilcox High seniors.

In a statement, Wilcox Schools Superintendent Steven Smith said, “When the ladies approached the Wilcox County Board of Education and me about hosting an integrated prom, we not only applauded their idea, but we also passed a resolution advocating that all activities involving our students be inclusive and non-discriminatory.”

In the last few years, two Georgia counties near Wilcox have ended segregated proms.

Turner County High School holds its seventh school-based prom this weekend and, for the first time, there are no private proms in competition. “I will tell you that it has not been an easy road,” said Turner Superintendent Ray Jordan. “Old habits and traditions die hard and, hopefully, we are reaching stage where we are building new traditions.”

Twice, Turner High has had to cancel school proms because students showed no interest, preferring to organize and attend private proms. And it was not just white students. One year, a black family organized a private prom that drew students away from the school prom.

“In 2010, we had a very similar situation,” said Jordan. “We were planning a prom and started selling tickets. But it got down to the time to sign the contracts for the music and such and we had only sold three or four tickets. So, we canceled prom that year.”

But a new principal came on board and redoubled efforts to spur student interest in a school prom, and participation has been rising. With around 190 students in the junior and senior classes, the school sold 153 tickets to Saturday’s prom in Tifton.

“For the first time since we began this journey, there are no private parties that compete with the prom,” said Jordan.

Students in Montgomery County led the effort to integrate their prom three years ago. Two years into the principal’s job at Montgomery High, Walding said, “The prom is now fully integrated. I donated $250 each year out of my own pocket to help support the prom. I would not do that unless it was an integrated prom.”

But the proms remained private until now. When students came to him this year and asked to raise money at school for their prom, Walding agreed with a proviso: the prom become school-sponsored, and prom-goers agree to abide by more stringent rules than parents may have imposed.

One reason the proms remained private all these many decades may have been that districts feared the liability of resuming control of the events, said Montgomery County Superintendent Randy Rodgers.

“With a lawyer on every corner, so to speak, there is always the possibility of legal action and some exposure of the schools if children were drinking and there were accidents. I think there could be an argument that you lessen your exposure if you don’t involve yourself in proms.”

But Rodgers believes that “proms should be part of high school life. In Montgomery County, we have worked hard to get these kids to support a school prom.”

He understands that some school administrators contend that prom falls low on the list of priorities, given budget deficits and the pressure to raise student performance. But Rodgers said a school-sponsored prom can build morale and improve the school climate.

His advice to friend and fellow school chief Smith in Wilcox County: “Do the right thing and keep the children in the center of everything you do, and things will take care of themselves.”