Party Like It’s 1899: What It’s Like Growing Up With a Segregated Prom

In parts of the U.S., segregated proms still appear to be going on in some form. So why is no one talking about it?

A Google search will lead you to believe that the problem of segregated proms was solved in 2014 after Wilcox County High School students protested the segregation of their annual formal dance
A Google search will lead you to believe that the problem of segregated proms was solved in 2014 after Wilcox County High School students protested the segregation of their annual formal dance. Malik Dupree for Observer

It’s prom season! Hurrah! You know, the annual formal high school dance, typically held at the end of senior year. Prom is a turning point for teens—as they’re about to embark from high school into adulthood.

But in certain places in the South, up until only a few years ago, this traditional dance, where teens adorn themselves in tuxedos and prom dresses, was segregated by race. No, not in the 1950s Jim Crow America; we’re talking about an era so recent that while this was going on, you were probably watching Game of Thrones. If you lived in Rochelle, Georgia, this teen milestone dance wouldn’t be officially school sanctioned and racially integrated until 2014.

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Susan Kent, who now resides in New York City, grew up in a nearby rural town of 9,000 in Ben Hill County, Georgia. She attended Fitzgerald High School and graduated in 1988—when her community held two proms: “white prom” and “black prom.” And, yes, that’s what people actually called it.

“Oh yeah,” Kent confirmed. “I think it’s probably more prevalent in these small rural places than anyone realizes.”

I first heard Kent retell her experiences growing up with a racially divided high school prom at an NYC storytelling show. Maybe I’m naïve, but I had no idea that this was still a thing in our relatively modern era—and I wanted to know more.

In 2013, “students revolted and decided to have an integrated prom,” explained Kent, referring to an incident in the next county over from her hometown at nearby Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Georgia. A handful of students organized a campaign so their school would hold an integrated prom; you know, a prom that would allow all races to attend. It wasn’t until the following year, 2014, that Wilcox High School had an official, school-sanctioned integrated prom. Yes, while Obama was in the White House, students in the United States had to take action so their high school prom could include African American and white students dancing in the same room together.

high school prom
The same type of justification that’s been used to defend segregated proms also runs parallel with a lot of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. All our president is missing is a corsage for Melania. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

In this modern age, the excuses that city officials, (white) parents and authority figures have given for segregated proms sound like a spin right out of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ playbook, usually along these sort of lines: Our school doesn’t have a prom—we just have these private events. They’re just private parties where certain people are invited; they’re not official proms!

This aspect of why there’s been such a fight, only in the past few years, to integrate proms also reflects the rise of Donald Trump.

“There’s a reason he had a huge support base,” said Kent. “I was not surprised when he won. Everyone was losing their minds like, ‘How did this happen?’ And I’m like, ‘Come on to my Facebook timeline—here’s how it happened!'”

The same type of justification that’s been used to defend segregated proms also runs parallel with the rhetoric Trump uses on the issue of immigration—a disclaimer that Trump’s not being racist… when clearly his rhetoric is racist.

Trump might say: “Our country is full,” like it’s some sort of logistical statement of fact, rather than xenophobic blathering—in the same way that Ben Hill County residents might say that segregated proms do not reflect racism, but simply different traditions and tastes.

“A lot of it they don’t see as racist,” said Kent. “They say really ignorant terrible things, but they’ve been in this community that’s been this way.”

It’s a rigged game of Catch-22—in which school officials can claim prom is just a private event—and thus why its dances are segregated. Or, it was set up that way to keep high school proms segregated by people with racist intentions.

“That was exactly how they got away with it because it wasn’t specifically school-sanctioned, or funded,” said Kent. From what she experienced, this “private party” excuse laid as much weight as Jim Crow-era voter literacy tests in the South designed to be prejudicial against black voters.

“All of our prom meetings were at the school with one of the teachers as the counselor,” Kent recalled. Having a teacher help organize the school prom was a luxury, of course, for white students. “The black students did it all on their own privately—because they weren’t even considered.”

High school prom dance
During the 1950s, desegregation in public schools was met with massive opposition in the South. Integrating high school prom dances was unheard of at the time. H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

So where initially did it all go wrong with Southern proms?

In Georgia, proms stopped being held in high schools during the ’60s and ’70s when desegregation was in full swing. This led to proms being hosted by parents and students, outside of school jurisdictions, leading to the tradition of a so-called “white prom” and “black prom.”

You can say this move was to avoid any racial unrest at the year-end dance. Or you could make the case that, instead, this move of exclusion only fueled racial discord. The “black prom/white prom” became just another Southern tradition alongside memorial statues of Robert E. Lee.

But the justification for segregated proms would go beyond the these are private events excuse. Back when Kent was in high school, she said there were clearly super racist reasons residents did not want to integrate prom.

“It would be like, ‘there would be too much fighting if we let y’all hang out at the same prom.’ Or, ‘what if a black person and a white person end up dancing together and then they’re going to be dating and then all hell is going to break loose!'”

Kent explained that the main reason why there was a segregated prom was the obvious: “People are real open about how racist they are. Also, it’s such a segregated community; the only time you’re really hanging out with anybody of a different race is at school.”

So, what’s it like when it’s prom time at your high school, the dances are segregated, and you just want to hang out with your friends—despite their race?

In Kent’s hometown, segregated prom was largely a one-way street; the so-called “white prom” was held at the Elks Lodge—where, as the lodge rules clearly stated, no black or Jewish people were allowed.

“The way that prom would happen,” she said, “a lot of the white kids would go to the ‘white prom,’ have their pictures taken, have the first couple of dances, and then go invade the ‘black prom.'”

Kent said the “black prom” had a less uptight attitude, was more accepting and a lot more fun—not to mention, it had much, much better music.

"black prom"
According to Susan Kent, who graduated from her rural Georgia high school in 1988, white students would crash her school’s “black prom” because it was more laidback. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Obviously, though, there was an unquestioned power dynamic at play.

“So we were still ‘integrating’ the prom, but it didn’t occur to me, until a few years ago, that that was still fucking privileged to us—that we [white students] could waltz into wherever we wanted,” Kent said.

Meanwhile, Kent’s black friend, Walt, who wanted to take her to prom, showed up at the white prom and was met in the parking lot by chaperones who turned him away. “Like, he couldn’t even get to the door,” Kent said.

“We were one of the few [interracial] friendships in that town where we crossed over and were actually friends,” she said. She and Walt would always flirt with each other, but “in my head, because it was so forbidden, it never occurred to me that he could possibly have any feelings for me—other than just being friends.”

When Kent found out that Walt was going to ask her to prom, her first response was: “Which prom?”

“Obviously it would have been his prom because we couldn’t have gone to the ‘white prom,'” she recalled. Because of the segregated pressures of her Southern small town community, she didn’t know how to handle Walt’s promposal; she ended up completely avoiding him.

Though Kent was very outspoken and vigilant about not being racist in her very bigoted community, “I was like, I’m not going to miss the ‘white prom.'”

As woke as Kent believed she was at the time, in her racist, rural Georgia community of 9,000 people, she wasn’t emotionally equipped as a 17-year-old kid to be part of the first-ever, interracial couple at her high school prom—accompanying that was also a fear of backlash.

So Walt, in turn, showed up at the prom that his school wouldn’t allow him to attend because of his race. The result was like a disturbing John Hughes movie.

“When I went to the ‘white prom,’ and I’m on my date… I see him pull up into the parking lot through these French doors of the Elks Lodge and saw him confronted by the chaperones,” Kent said. “And he looked up and saw me, and we made eye contact. And he turned back to the chaperone and I ran away.”

“Once we got to that real stuff… we stopped being friends,” she said. “And I never talked to him [after that] until about three years ago.”

A Google search will lead you to believe that the problem of segregated proms was solved in 2014 after Wilcox County High School students protested the segregation of their annual formal dance—and school officials finally caved in to have a sanctioned integrated prom. News channels, such as CNN, made the Wilcox High integrated prom story seem like it was a triumph in race relations. (Reminder: This was just in 2014—a mere five years ago.)

When the incident happened: “A lot of the white students who still wanted to have their ‘white prom’ went to a different town to do it. That was my hometown,” said Kent, adding, “Yeah, bring your racist ass in, we got you!

 privately funded "white proms"
In the South, privately funded “white proms” are actually a lot more common than school officials would like you to believe. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Kent recently received messages on Facebook from former classmates who told her that the 2014 media attention doesn’t mean that “white proms” aren’t still happening; they could be under the radar. Potentially true—Trump’s America has far from created racial harmony in our country.

“Last I heard, there’s the school-sanctioned integrated prom,” said Kent, hypothesizing, “so the people of color go to the integrated prom. And the white people have their own prom.”

So, if segregated proms are still going on in some form—why aren’t we really hearing about it?

In Mississippi, Charleston High School didn’t hold its first interracial prom until 2008. In fact, actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in the area, offered to pay for the dance—as long as everyone was allowed to attend. But in Cleveland, Mississippi, just a mere hour away, students were still attending segregated schools up until 2017. Obviously it’s a step forward, but there are still lingering racial divisions in these areas of the South.

“I think there’s a huge degree of shame because, at their core, they know it is fucked up,” Kent said.

She feels that if secret segregated proms are still going on, locals in Ben Hill County don’t particularly want the rest of the world to know it’s still happening: “That’s the whole southern way of being; it doesn’t matter what goes on inside the house, just as long as the yard looks good.”

Also, there was plenty of backlash after the Wilcox County High School move to integrate prom became national news. Even in 2013, Ben Hill County officials wouldn’t allow members of the press to enter the vicinity.

“CNN was showing up in backwoods South Georgia,” said Kent. “And [from] what I understand, they tried to go to Fitzgerald, my town, and the sheriff’s office met them at the county line, and they were like ‘No, you’re not coming in!'” she explained, mentioning the ethos of her town was largely instigated by “two white dudes”—the mayor and the sheriff, who were both in office for 30 to 40 years. “It’s pretty lawless in a sense. It’s a real martial law kind of vibe down there; it’s country as fuck.”

Neither Fitzgerald High School nor Wilcox County High School returned Observer’s request for comment.

So in 2019, citizens of Ben Hill County can now be more open about things like interracial dating and being gay. (Walt ended up staying in Kent’s hometown, where he was in an interracial marriage, although he later divorced.) But there’s still a long way to go when it comes to open-mindedness; by no means is this the Castro District of San Francisco—it’s rural Georgia. Still, there’s been some progress. “You’re no longer afraid that the KKK is going to burn a cross on your lawn—which was a real fear when I was growing up there,” Kent said. “It’s progress, but [there’s] still ‘black prom/white prom,’ and the n-word is just another word you use… that kind of stuff.”

While the seeds of what would later lead to Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally were being planted in her community, Kent said that back in high school, for the most part, her African American friends weren’t all exactly clamoring to go to “white prom.”

“In reality—going to prom with your redneck, racist, KKK-hooded wearing neighbors? Nah,” said Kent, adding, “Don’t take that from the white lady’s mouth, but why would you want to get closer to these assholes?”

Though, when reaching out to her high school friends to confirm this, Kent had trouble getting anyone to comment on the record

“Southerners are a secretive, distrustful bunch—especially when dealing with race shit,” Kent said.

high school prom
When the music stops and the lights come on, the ugly truth of rampant racism throughout our country can be seen clear as day—and it’s not just at America’s high school proms. It’s everywhere. Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

I’m not exactly sure what the feel-good ending to this story is. We can say things in our country have gotten better since Wilcox County High School held its first racially integrated school-sanctioned prom back in the old-timey days of 2014. But again, in the United States of Trump, we are seeing the rise of white nationalism, shootings at synagogues, xenophobia and a president who instigates a general fear of brown people.

It almost feels like we’re moving backwards.

Harmon Leon is a freelance journalist and the author of eight books. Pre-order his latest book, Tribespotting: Undercover Cult(ure) Stories, now. 

Party Like It’s 1899: What It’s Like Growing Up With a Segregated Prom