12-03-2016  1:40 am      •     

ASHBURN, Georgia – As parents and teachers watched, dozens of Turner County High School senior students circled a graying city auditorium that was transformed for a night into a tropical scene for the spring formal prom dance.
And, for the first time, the faces of the students were White and Black.
Prom had officially returned to Turner County High School.
Black and White students at the southern Georgia school have been partying separately for decades -- a form of self-imposed segregation that still lingered generations after the civil rights movement began.
Each year, White students raised money for their own unofficial prom and Black students did the same to throw a separate party. The private parties soon became an annual ritual that divided Turner County anew each spring.
But a new tradition was born on Saturday.
Horse drawn carriages and stretch limousines carrying happy couples roamed the streets of downtown Ashburn. Churches, parks and homes were turned into backdrops as tireless students posed for round after round of photos. And local restaurants were packed to the brim with classmates treating their dates to fancy meals.
"I couldn't be more proud of these young people," said Ray Jordan, the county's school superintendent. "The changes needed to come from the student body."
And they did.
At the start of the school year, Turner County's four senior class officers delivered a message to principal Chad Stone: They wanted an official prom, and they wanted everyone invited.
Stone quickly obliged, spending $5,000 of his discretionary fund to put together the first school-sponsored prom in decades. Another $5,000 came streaming in from supporters after news stories about the dance spread across the nation.
"Tonight, it's a fresh start," said James Hall, the Black senior class president who led the charge for the integrated prom.
Separate proms are the latest ritual to be defied by the town of 4,000.
"The school is making changes -- and they're long overdue," said Aniesha Gipson, who became the county's first solo homecoming queen in the fall after it abandoned its practice of crowning separate White and Black queens.
But some traditions die hard. About two-thirds of the school's 160 upper-class students purchased tickets for the prom, but Blacks still easily outnumbered Whites at the dance. And many Whites still attended their own private party a week before.
"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 other White students would comment about the dance, telling reporters gathered outside the gym they were instructed by school officials not to talk with the media.
Inside, though, the party was hopping. A deejay blasted songs as dozens of couples took to the dance floor. Electric palm trees stiffly swayed on the gym's stage just below a banner of the prom's theme: Breakaway.
"This is history, baby, this is history," said Noriega McKeller, a 19-year-old senior. "Somebody had to do it. Why couldn't it be us?"
--The Associated Press

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