Love Has No Colour: The Wilcox County Integrated Prom
On April 27, 2013, a group of graduating students at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Georgia, held their school’s first-ever integrated prom, where both Black and white students could attend together. No, the year in that last sentence is not a typo. Until 2013, nearly 60 years after the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation unconstitutional, Wilcox County High School had never held an integrated prom. Instead, the school held no prom at all, and parents organized private segregated celebrations.
In December 2013, on behalf of the Museum’s Oral History Program, I had the opportunity to interview two of the Georgia students who decided to work for change: Maréshia Rucker and Quanesha Wallace. Quanesha told me that, right from the start, there was opposition to the idea of an integrated prom: “When we were trying to get it started, some people didn’t like the idea and they were ripping down our signs and you know…it was just bad vibes.” Maréshia remembers that many teachers also gave organizers a hard time, saying: “Senior year was a trip—it was a struggle…. A lot of teachers wouldn’t even talk to me.”
CMHR Researcher-Curator Matthew McRae conducts an oral history interview with Quanesha Wallace on December 7, 2013 in Albany, Georgia.
Maréshia, Quanesha and their friends continued to push ahead despite such challenges. Then, everything changed when they created a Facebook page for the prom, entitled “Love Has No Color: Integrated Prom.” Maréshia had originally created the page simply to communicate with her fellow high-school seniors about the event, but within the first four days, the page was getting thousands of hits and receiving hundreds of messages of support from all over the world. Ultimately, the integrated prom page received over 28,000 “Likes” and the organizing committee raised over $15,000 in donations for the prom.
With the success of the Facebook page came media attention from news organizations such as the New York Times, the Toronto Star and Great Britain’s Daily Mail, to name just a few. The sudden spotlight was overwhelming for a group of high-school students from small-town Georgia. Maréshia told me “It came out of the blue—it was like the iceberg that hit the Titanic.” In the end, the media circus was a good thing, since it spread the word and brought in even more offers to help. It even influenced Maréshia’s career path—as a result of her experience, she has chosen to pursue a major in Mass Communications at college.
CMHR Researcher-Curator Matthew McRae conducts an oral history interview with Maréshia Rucker on December 8, 2013 in Albany, Georgia.
Despite everything, many of the white parents chose to go ahead with their privately-held segregated prom. Maréshia went to watch many of her classmates enter that dance and remembers it as perhaps the most difficult part of her prom experience. She was seeing friends she had grown up with choose to exclude her because of her skin colour: “It really hurt my feelings because it’s like, wow. That was kind of a ‘This is really what you think of me?’ moment…. I was speechless, and I never have nothing to say.”
Despite all the obstacles and divisions in the community, Maréshia and Quanesha agreed that the prom, held on April 27, 2013, was a tremendous success. “Being at the prom felt like a life-changing moment,” Quanesha told me, “It was so magical.” For Maréshia, it was a small step towards a better world: “The most rewarding part was when everybody toasted…and we basically toasted to change in general. I think that was the happiest moment.” It was a moment that did bring real change to a small community—in May 2013, Wilcox County High School announced that it would sponsor a prom in 2014. As an official school event, the prom will have to be integrated.
The oral histories conducted with Maréshia and Quanesha will be stored in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR)’s oral history collection, for the use of human rights researchers from around the world. The story of the Wilcox County High School’s first integrated prom will be featured in the Museum when it opens on September 20, 2014. Visitors will be able to see a tuxedo and prom dress from the big night, along with posters, photos and other memorabilia.