Prom night at Turner County High has long been an evening of de facto segregation: white students organized their own unofficial prom, while black students did the same.
This year's group of seniors didn't want that legacy. When the four senior class officers — two whites and two blacks — met with Principal Chad Stone at the start of the school year, they had more on their minds than changes to the school's dress code.
They wanted an all-school prom. They wanted everyone invited.
On April 21, they'll have their wish. The town's auditorium will be transformed into a tropical scene, and for the first time, every junior and senior, regardless of race, will be invited.
The prom's theme: Breakaway.
"Everybody says that's just how it's always been. It's just the way of this very small town," said James Hall, a 17-year-old black student who is the senior class president.
"But it's time for a change."
There are excited announcements of the upcoming dance plastered all over the school, where about 55 percent of students are black and most of the rest are white.
A makeshift countdown to the prom is displayed as a cardboard cutout on a main hallway. Student council members canvass the hallways, asking students to buy a $25 ticket and be a part of history. In the cafeteria, images of palm trees and waterfalls brighten up the sterile walls. "The First Ever!" a poster exclaims. "Got your haircut?"
Students say the self-segregation that splits social circles in school mirrors the attitude of this town of 4,000 people. So getting every student to break from the past could be a difficult task.
With prom night about two weeks away, only half of the 160 upper-class students have bought tickets. And there's talk around the school that some white students might throw a competing party at a nearby lake.
"Everyone is saying they're not going to the school prom," said Steven Tuller, a 17-year-old white junior who doesn't plan to attend either event because he wants to wait until he's a senior. "They're saying it's tradition."
Yet Turner County High already has defied tradition this year. The school abandoned its practice of naming separate white and black homecoming queens. Instead, a mixed-race student was named the county's first solo homecoming queen.
Some alumni welcome change at Turner County High.
"People still think of how life was 20, 30 years ago," said Keith Massey, a 1990 graduate who now runs the popular Keith-A-Que restaurant in town, about 75 miles south of Macon. "And life's got to move on."
Massey recalls an attempt to integrate one of the prom parties when he was in school, but few whites showed up. Attempts to organize a school-wide prom in recent years failed because of a lack of student support.
Stone, serving his first year as the school's principal, has been enthusiastic about an integrated prom. He's funneling $5,000 of his meager discretionary fund to hire a DJ and buy decorations, and he's persuaded a photographer to set up shop at the civic center to snap photos of the couples before the dance.
"This senior class is a close-knit group from top to bottom, and they want to do what's right," said Stone, who is white. "They wanted a full school prom. And I told them if they would do it, I'd do them right."
By Greg Bluestein