ROCHELLE, GA. - Quanesha Wallace may be the most popular girl at Wilcox County High School. Last fall, she was elected homecoming queen and wore a $300 dress to cross the football field at halftime to take the crown.
But Wallace didn't go to the homecoming dance. She thought about trying to buy a ticket, she said, but changed her mind after she heard that a biracial student had been turned down.
Wallace is black. The dance is typically held by and for white students. The school doesn't officially sponsor it, so administrators say they can't intervene.
Same with the prom. Although the April 20 dance was an all-white affair, and students were allowed to organize and sell tickets on campus, administrators call it a private party, out of their jurisdiction.
But then school officials and other townspeople had to defend that view to reporters from New York to Los Angeles, and beyond — thanks to social media-fueled buzz about Saturday night's integrated prom, organized by Wallace and a handful of other students.
And the folks fielding the questions didn't much like it, being prodded to explain, over and over, that what outsiders might take for racism is just-the-way-it's-always-been.
"It's been completely blown out of the water. The media has gotten ahold of it, but nobody here cares. Nobody is putting up a barricade to be separatist," said Brent Peebles, a white 30-something insurance salesman. The separate dances, he said, are purely a matter of "personal preference."
Even Wallace, a tall and dimpled senior, said that's how she took the prospect of being barred from the homecoming dance. "It's tradition," she said.
Tradition? When that notion gets voiced in a separate conversation, Toni Rucker, the mother of one of Wallace's co-organizers, pounces: "Then it's traditional racism." The idea of the integrated prom was born out of a racial healing project spearheaded by Harriet Hollis, a coordinator with the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education.
One of the 'racial ills'
"[Prom] is one of the racial ills here," Hollis said. "But in Wilcox, they don't think they have any issues." School Superintendent Steve Smith declined to be interviewed last week. In an e-mail, he said, "I support what these young ladies are doing," and directed the paper to the district's website for further insight.
On the home page, embedded incongruously in a lengthy recitation of the school's academic and athletic achievements, is this paragraph: "WCHS is much like any other high school, where the homecoming king and queen are chosen by popular vote (and are allowed to have their picture made together, despite published reports to the contrary!). Most discipline problems relate to tardies and matters of the heart, and students see skin color through their parents' eyes."
With a student population that is 54 percent white and 41 percent black, just 5 percent of teachers and administrators here are black, according to 2011 data from the Georgia Department of Education.
White residents understand that segregated proms might shock sensibilities in the outside world, but many say the town has been wrongly portrayed.
The prom is planned by juniors, they say, so the senior girls behind the integrated prom had their chance to make their mark last year.
The school does hold some integrated dances, they note, specifically the military ball. And a Latino boy attended this year's white prom as the date of a white girl.
But despite that tradition, Wilcox County High School on Saturday night celebrated a major milestone. The students made history with their first-ever integrated prom — complete with formal attire, dancing and even the occasional tiara.