After a few decades, the de facto segregation became tradition.
The classrooms, cafeteria and playing fields at the southwest Georgia school were a blend of black and white through most of the school year. But as spring neared and planning began for the year's most anticipated event, the students were racially divided again.
This year's group of Turner County seniors didn't want that legacy. When the four senior class officers - two whites and two blacks - met with Principal Chad Stone at the start of the school year, they had more on their minds than changes to the school's dress code.
They wanted an official, school-sponsored prom. And they wanted everyone invited.
On April 21, they'll have their wish. The town's graying auditorium will be transformed into a tropical scene, and for the first time, every junior and senior, regardless of race, will be invited to a school-sponsored prom.
The prom's theme: Breakaway.
"Everybody says that's just how it's always been. It's just the way of this very small town," said James Hall, a 17-year-old black student who is the senior class president. "But it's time for a change."
Excited announcements of the upcoming dance are plastered all over the school, where about 55 percent of students are black and most of the rest are white.
Although the self-segregation that splits social circles at Turner County High is echoed elsewhere, there's a feeling that it's been intensified by divisive traditions.
Yet this school year, Turner County High started taking aim at some of those rituals. In the fall, it abandoned its practice of naming separate white and black homecoming queens. Instead, a mixed-race student was named the county's first solo homecoming queen.
And Mr. Stone has been eager to throw his support behind an integrated prom. He's using $5,000 of his meager discretionary fund to hire a DJ and buy decorations, and he has persuaded a photographer to snap photos of the couples before the dance.
Some alumni welcome change at Turner County High.
"People still think of how life was 20, 30 years ago," said Keith Massey, a 1990 graduate of the high school who now runs the popular Keith-A-Que restaurant. "And life's got to move on."
MIXING THINGS UP
The practice of separate, private proms for black and white students took hold in a number of Georgia counties after the end of officially sanctioned school segregation.
In recent years, school systems in some of those counties have sought to counteract the practice by sponsoring official proms for all students.
- Associated Press