May 19, 2003 12:00 PM

On May 9 the dining room of the Dublin, Ga., Elks Lodge will be decked out in purple and silver. Cardboard trees will sprout glittery cardboard diamonds. And just before 8 p.m. about 200 teenagers will arrive in pickup trucks and rented limos for an annual rite of spring: a junior-senior prom for students at Johnson County High School. “I hope I don’t fall off my heels,” says Carla Rachels, 17, one of the event’s organizers. There will be punch and snacks, she says, and a deejay hired to spin until midnight.

But there will be no African-Americans. In a tradition as old as anyone in central Georgia can remember, the black and white students of the high school in Wrightsville, who otherwise mingle in the halls and play on the same sports teams, still go their separate ways on prom night. Many in Johnson County (pop. 8,500) simply accept the status quo. “A really nice black boy asked if we could get together and talk about it. I talked to some of the other white kids about mixing the proms together, and it got shot down,” says Rachels. “I’m happy with the way it is.” Others aren’t so thrilled. “I think there should be one prom,” says Tierra Wiley, an African-American junior who attended the black prom on April 19. “All the black kids want it. Some of the white kids too. I think it would be more fun.”

Yet no one in the town—not the kids nor their parents or teachers—has made a meaningful move to unite the two dances. “Most people here don’t want to stick their necks out,” explains Rev. Eugene Allen, a past president of the NAACP in neighboring Laurens County. “A lot of the blacks are comfortable, and they don’t want to rock the boat too much.” Kathy Cox, Georgia’s Superintendent of Schools, thinks the adults have a responsibility to step in to end what she views as a throwback to a divided past. “This is where the school should play a leadership role,” she says, “and bridge the gap that still exists between the races.”

Since the Johnson County school board has no official control over the proms—they are technically student-organized and student-funded activities—Cox and other state officials are powerless to bring about a change. And administrators at Johnson County High, where the 375-member student body is split evenly among blacks and whites, see no reason to. “We don’t get involved,” says school principal Roland Thomas. As for whether holding segregated proms could be considered racist, “I’d rather not comment on that,” Thomas says.

Though no national figures exist, Johnson is not the only county in the U.S. to host segregated proms. Last year two juniors in Taylor County, Ga.—one white, one black—broke a 31-year tradition of separation by organizing a prom that attracted a mixed group of more than 100 kids. By the time prom season arrived again this year a splinter group of 50 white students in Taylor County had decided to attend another whites-only dance, held May 2 in Columbus. The school’s mixed dance will go ahead May 9. Says Linda Drains, 35, a child-evaluation specialist at the Georgia Center for Youth and a sponsor of the integrated prom: “It kind of hurt the feelings of the black students when the white kids didn’t invite any of them to the prom. I think there’s definitely some racism.”

If feelings are hurt back in Johnson County, few are airing them openly. “I certainly wouldn’t think it’s anything racial,” said Deidre Ledford, 22, a white Johnson County High grad and editor of The Johnson Journal weekly newspaper. “We don’t have a racial problem here.” Local Sheriff Rusty Oxford agrees—despite two incidents last July in which black citizens reported being stalked by a car carrying two or three men wearing white robes. By the time police arrived, he notes, the alleged stalkers had disappeared and witnesses could not identify the make, year or color of the car.

Whether the split proms are racially motivated or not, some see signs of potential change at the school. Since 2000, Johnson County High School reunions have been integrated affairs. And even though they choose to sit separately in the lunch room, black and white kids generally get along. “Fighting racism has been tough in this part of Georgia,” says Allen. “Hopefully the generations coming along will be able to change that.”

Patrick Rogers

Don Sider in Wrightsville and Lori Rozsa in Miami

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