ASHBURN, Ga. – For the first time, the faces of students at the Turner County High School prom were both white and black.
Each year, in spite of integration, the school's white students had raised money for their own unofficial prom and black students did the same to throw their own separate party, an annual ritual that divided the southern Georgia peanut-farming county anew each spring.
That all changed Saturday as horse-drawn carriages and stretch limousines carried young couples around the downtown streets to a single prom.
"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."
At the start of the school year, Turner County's four senior class officers had told principal Chad Stone they wanted an official prom and they wanted everyone invited.
Stone spent $5,000 of his discretionary fund to put together the county's first school-sponsored prom. Another $5,000 came from supporters after news stories about the plan 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.
The rural county seat of 4,000 people has been in need of uplifting news. Although a candy packaging plant employs hundreds, as does the up-and-down peanut industry, many of the better paying jobs are in larger towns in the region. The high school is one of the few things that give Ashburn a sense of community.
"The school is making changes — and they're long overdue," said Aniesha Gipson, who became the county's first solo homecoming queen last fall as it abandoned the practice of crowning separate white and black queens.
Still, traditions die hard. Only about two-thirds of the school's 160 upper-class students purchased tickets for the prom, blacks still easily outnumbered whites at the dance, and many whites still attended their own private party a week earlier.
"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 that school officials told them not to talk to the media.
"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?"