While America’s schools did gradually become officially integrated, with Black and white students attending classes together, echoes of segregation have continued to reverberate through many communities. At Wilcox County High School, one of those echoes was prom. Between 1954 and 2013, the school never held an integrated prom. Instead, it held no prom at all, and parents organized private, segregated celebrations. When the first integrated prom finally did take place in 2013, it wasn’t the law that made it happen. Instead, it was a small group of Black and white students, who decided to take action and create change in their own community.
In December 2013, the Museum conducted oral histories with two of the former high-school students who were part of the group that had organized the prom: Maréshia Rucker and Quanesha Wallace. Quanesha said 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 remembered 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.”
Maréshia, Quanesha and their friends continued to push ahead despite such challenges. Then, everything changed when they created a Facebook page - will open in a new tab 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 - will open in a new tab, the Toronto Star - will open in a new tab and Al Jazeera - will open in a new tab, to name just a few. The sudden spotlight was overwhelming for a group of high-school students from small-town Georgia. Maréshia explained, “It came out of the blue – it was like the iceberg that hit the Titanic.” In the end, the media coverage spread the word and brought in more offers of help. It even influenced Maréshia’s career path – because of her experience, she chose to pursue a major in Mass Communications at college.
Despite the success of fundraising efforts, many white parents still chose to go ahead with their privately held segregated prom. Maréshia stood outside that prom and watched as many of her white classmates attended the segregated event. She 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 said, “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. The following year – exactly 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the integration of all segregated schools in America – Wilcox County High School held a school-sponsored year-end prom - will open in a new tab. As an official school event, the prom was open to all students.
Wilcox County High School is not alone. Since the mid-2000s, other high schools in the American South have chosen to hold official, integrated proms after many years of leaving parents to organize segregated proms. In 2007, Turner County High School in Ashburn, Georgia, held its first integrated prom - will open in a new tab. The next year, Charleston High School in Charleston, Mississippi, held its first integrated prom – an event that was turned into a documentary - will open in a new tab by Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman. Then, in 2010, Montgomery County High School in Montgomery, Georgia, also held its first integrated prom - will open in a new tab. These changes might seem small, but they can make a big difference in the lives of the students who they affect.
As part of its exhibit examining the student activism that led to the Wilcox County High School integrated prom, the Museum displays a prom dress and a tuxedo that were worn to that first prom in 2013. The tuxedo, worn by organizer Brandon Davis, and the dress, worn by Maréshia Rucker, stand as a reminder that taking action for human rights isn’t just something prime ministers and presidents can do – it’s something everyone can do, by using their particular skills and abilities to create positive change in their own communities.
The oral histories conducted with Maréshia and Quanesha are stored in the Museum's oral history collection. The story of the Wilcox County High School’s first integrated prom is featured in the Museum’s Inspiring Change gallery.