One prom for everyone

Published April 23, 2007

ASHBURN, Ga. - For the first time, the faces of students at the Turner County High School prom were both white and black.

Each year, in spite of integration, the school's white students had raised money for their own unofficial prom and black students did the same, an annual ritual that divided the southern Georgia peanut-farming county anew each spring.

That all changed Saturday as horse-drawn carriages and stretch limousines carried young couples to a single prom.

"I couldn't be more proud of these young people," said county school superintendent Ray Jordan. "The changes needed to come from the student body."

At the start of the school year, Turner County's four senior class officers had told principal Chad Stone that they wanted an official prom for everyone.

Stone spent $5,000 of his discretionary fund on the county's first school-sponsored prom. Another $5,000 came from supporters after news about the plan spread across the nation.

"Tonight, it's a fresh start," said James Hall, the black senior class president who led the charge.

The rural county seat of 4,000 people has been in need of uplifting news. Although a candy packaging plant employs hundreds, as does the up-and-down peanut industry, many of the better paying jobs are in larger towns in the region. The high school is one of the few things that give Ashburn a sense of community.

"The school is making changes - and they're long overdue," said Aniesha Gipson, who became the county's first solo homecoming queen last fall as it abandoned the practice of crowning separate white and black queens.

Still, traditions die hard. Only about two-thirds of the school's 160 upper-class students purchased tickets for the prom, blacks easily outnumbered whites at the dance, and many whites still attended their own private party a week earlier.

"Last weekend was more like tradition. It wasn't racist, or prejudice," said Calvin Catom, a white senior who attended both parties. "This weekend is about the whole school getting together and having a party."

Few white students would comment, saying school officials told them not to talk to the media.

"This is history, baby, this is history," said Noriega McKeller, 19, a senior. "Somebody had to do it. Why couldn't it be us?"