It was prom night last night in rural Georgia. Or at least it was for some. For new graduates in one high school yesterday danced to an old Southern tune - racial segregation.
White students at Taylor County High school held a whites-only prom, separating on racial grounds some children who had been educated together since kindergarten in their final rite of passage as they leave school.
The decision to hold the whites-only event was a particular blow for some because the school held its first integrated prom in 31 years last year. Before then, parents and students organized separate proms for whites and blacks after school officials stopped sponsoring dances, partly to avoid problems arising from interracial dating.
"I cried," said Gerica McCrary, a black student who helped organize last year's integrated dance, of the moment when she heard the news. "The black [students] said, 'Our prom is open to everyone. If you want to come, come'."
But a group of white students, clearly unhappy with the integrated precedent set last year, decided they simply could not bear it and struck out on their own. "They didn't vote on anything," said McCrary. "They said, 'this is what we're going to do'."
Some white students plan to go to both proms. "I had some white friends who were not going to the other [inclusive] prom," said Erin Posey. "I wanted to have time with everybody. I'll have a lot of [black] friends there too. A lot more of the seniors are going to be at the mixed one."
Segregated proms are not unheard of in the South, where apartheid-style segregation was legal less than 50 years ago. In 1954 the US supreme court ruled that the provision of "separate but equal" facilities was unconstitutional. But while the law changed overnight, the power structure that enforced segregation and the mindset that policed it have been more stubborn. The state of Georgia is set to vote on its third flag in two years, following a bitter row over the desire of many whites to see a return of the Confederate symbol - the mark of the slave-owning south.
The integration of state schools prompted many white parents to take their children out of the state sector and educate them privately in what are commonly known as "seg academies".
Many southern state schools, like Taylor County High, which have a large intake of both black and white students, nonetheless maintain segregated practices.
Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which President George Bush visited during his election campaign, only lifted its ban on interracial dating in 2000. As recently as two years ago, the high school in ColdWater, Mississippi, held separate votes for its black and white homecoming queens.
Just a few years ago, Hernando High school in Mississippi had everything in racial duplicate - from a black and a white principal to black and white yearbooks.
Taylor County High still has a black and a white junior class president. But last year the students decided to break the mould.
"Everybody finally decided to grow up," said McCrary.
Amber Williams, a white fellow-student, agreed. "We go to school together; we should do our prom together," she said. She received anonymous phone threats but the party went ahead. Since the county has only one public elementary school and one middle school, many of the students who had been friends since kindergarten could finally finish school together.
The students were so keen to start a new tradition that the theme of last year's prom was "Make it last for ever".
It was not to be. "I would have liked to see it together this year," said Gerard Latimore, the black junior class president. "It just didn't happen."
His mother, Glenda, said news of the segregated prom reflected the underlying racism in the area rather than any overt hostility. The white people she encounters, she says, are "nice and friendly" but they have a problem with proms.
"It seems like it's something secret," she said. "The white people are afraid to speak up against the separation."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003