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.
For those who are familiar with American history, it almost sounds unbelievable that an integrated prom did not occur until 2013. After all, it was 59 years earlier, in 1954, that the United States Supreme Court ordered the integration of all segregated schools across the country, including all school events. Segregation is the enforced separation of racial groups, and the 1954 Supreme Court ruling was intended to end this forced separation in America’s schools.
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 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 Al Jazeera, 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. 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. The next year, Charleston High School in Charleston, Mississippi, held its first integrated prom – an event that was turned into a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman. Then, in 2010, Montgomery County High School in Montgomery, Georgia, also held its first integrated prom. 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.
Where do I see racism and discrimination in my community?
Where do I see barriers to making sure everyone can participate in community events?
What steps can I take to create positive change?
Matthew McRae worked at the Museum as Researcher and as Digital Content Specialist.
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Ann de Vries
We moved to Georgia in 1991 and were clueless about race relations. We thought, Civil Rights Movement, end of discrimination and everything is cool. Were we ever wrong. Our real estate agent kept steering us away from several neighbourhoods we wanted to see, by telling us that they were high crime areas. We didn’t have any idea about redlining, but we were deliberately kept away from looking for houses in black neighbourhoods. The real estate agent and several new neighbours tried to convince us to send our high school aged children to the private school that everyone in the subdivision used. We believe in public education and declined. We were one of two families that sent our children to the public high school. That mother later told me that the private school was intentionally set up as whites only, so the neighbourhood children didn’t have to attend schools with any black students or teachers. Our children’s black friends were extremely nervous about visiting and when asked what was wrong, they told us that people in our neighbourhood didn’t like black people and that it wasn’t really very safe for them to be seen hanging around. Then a black family moved into the neighbourhood and there was a ‘welcome wagon’ cross burning...[Edited for length.]
I had the privilege of meeting this young woman and some of her family at the CMHR a few years ago. They astounded that anyone outside of their state, never mind country, had heard about this challenge to segregation.