**I wrote this story in April of 2009, as part of my requirements to fulfill my journalism degree at Columbia University. I didn’t want to let it quietly hibernate on my laptop through another prom season, so I’m posting it here. And just to be clear, this issue is not only present in the deep South. Throughout my research, I found recent (within the past decade) segregated proms scattered throughout the US, included a “Russians Only” prom in Brooklyn. I do think, at this point, Wilcox County holds the only remaining segregated prom–though my research is certainly not exhaustive. **
United We Stand, Divided We Dance: Wilcox County Proms in Black and White
The classrooms at Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Georgia stand empty on a cool, sunny Thursday morning. Whitney Turner, a petite junior with a headful of tiny braids, chocolate skin and wide-set expressive eyes, shifts her weight and studies her feet. Her stiletto heels sink in the soft earth. She’s sandwiched between her identical twin Brittney and their friend Regan Beale. When Whitney turns to survey the crowd, Beale’s long blond hair brushes her cheek. The whole school, black and white, has turned out. Everyone loved Jay McDuffie.
Brittney clings to Whitney and sniffs, swiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Beale stares stoically ahead, yanking at the hem of her baby-doll dress as Britt Peavy, pastor of Pitts Church of God, says, “Jay was always laughing and joking. He wouldn’t want y’all to mope around.”
On cue, Michael McDuffie and Mac McKinney, both 19, crank their engines and, with their trucks still in park, slam on the gas. The quick, satisfying bursts are their own eulogy to the lean, blue-eyed 17-year-old who had been Michael’s brother and McKinney’s best friend—the boy who lived in his John Deere hoodie, loved souped-up trucks and massive parties and four days ago, slammed his Chevy into a tree at 80 mph, ending his life on Rochelle’s infamous S-curves.
As the final roar descends into silence, punctuated by muffled weeping, Whitney thinks about Jay’s father, Police Chief Michael McDuffie. An hour ago in the high school gym, he had begged his son’s peers—“Please slow down.” February 8, 2009, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Chief McDuffie had discovered his son’s mangled body.