By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - On Saturday, 68 seniors will graduate from Wilcox County High School in South Georgia, leaving behind a legacy that could last long after they’ve said their goodbyes: Next year, for the first time, their high school will host a prom.
It’s a new tradition in their small rural community, one they hope will eliminate their county’s custom of private, racially segregated proms.
A small group from 2013’s senior class sparked the idea of an integrated prom this year, bucking 40 years of high school tradition.
When their county’s racially segregated schools combined in the early 1970s, the school called off its homecoming dance and prom; it was a volatile time at the newly integrated school, alumni said, and parents and school leaders were wary of black and white students attending the same dance. Like in many other Southern communities, Wilcox County students and parents stepped in to plan private, off-site parties, complete with formal gowns, tuxedos, DJs and décor.
But long after outward racial tension died down, the private, segregated parties in Wilcox County remained – a quiet reminder of racism, students said.
This year, a few white and black seniors organized a prom open to all Wilcox County High School students, whether white, black, Latino or Asian.
By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
Wilcox County, Georgia (CNN) - It's a springtime tradition in this stretch of the magnolia midlands for crowds to gather at high school students' proms. They'll cheer for teens in tuxedos and gowns while an announcer reads what the students will do once they leave this pecan grove skyline.
Earlier this month, Wilcox County High School senior Mareshia Rucker rode to a historic theater in the nearby town of Fitzgerald to see her own classmates' prom celebration. She never left the car, even to catch up with her friends. She'd recently helped to invite the critical gaze of the world to her county; few would be happy to see her there, she said. Besides, she's black and wasn't invited to this prom reserved for white students anyway.
For as long as most remember, Wilcox County High School hasn't sponsored a prom for its 400 students. Instead, parents and their children organize their own private, off-site parties, known casually as white prom and black prom - a vestige of racial segregation that still lives on.
(CNN) – As Quanesha Wallace remembers, it was around this time last year when the idea first came up at Wilcox County High School. It was nothing big, just chatter about prom, school, what comes next, what they'd change.
If things were different, someone said, we'd all go to the same prom.
For as long as anyone could remember, students in their South Georgia community went to separate proms, and homecoming dances, too. White students from Wilcox County attend one. Black students, another. They’re private events organized by parents and students, not the school district. Schools have long been desegregated, but in Wilcox County, the dances never changed.
(CNN) - It starts at the mall, with a girl in a pink dress, browsing alone.
"Why is she at the mall?" a teen behind her sputters. "She ain't got no money."
Mona Lisa hears it. It's not the first time she's been picked on. She argues a little, tries to ignore them, but they bump into her and call her names. She wants to run, wants to be strong, wants all this to just go away.
At home later, the phone rings: "I just wanted to tell you, you should kill yourself," a voice cackles. "You're ugly and nobody will ever love you."
After a day like this, Mona Lisa believes what she's hearing. She grabs a handful of pills and climbs out the window. With voices in her head yelling louder and louder, she jumps.
Actress Alexis Lee crumples to the floor. The jump isn't real, the dress is a costume, the play is fiction, at least at the moment. But Mona Lisa and Alexis aren't so different. At 17, Alexis has been bullied and teased, been made to feel ugly, like she's nothing. She moved to escape terrible situations, only to be delivered into worse circumstances. She's got scars from where she cut herself, memories from when she tried to kill herself.
"The only way to have some peace for me is to not be here," she remembers thinking.
Alexis didn't write the play, called "Deep Within." That work was done by Noemi, Sabrina and Velicia, girls who lived, at least for a little while, in a juvenile detention center in Georgia. They participated in Playmaking for Girls, a theater workshop created by Atlanta nonprofit Synchronicity Theatre to encourage incarcerated girls to tell their stories and find their own voices.
Alexis knows only their first names, but she knows kids in detention centers do not usually talk about bullying, or suicide, what they were feeling at their worst or how they're going to get better.
"The majority of them probably don't have that outlet to speak and express on how they feel based on what's been going on in their lives, who did them wrong, and this is their chance," Alexis says.
She knows because she's been there, too.
'Not a 30-second sound bite'
A few times a year, Rachel May and Susie Spear Purcell walk into a room of 20 girls who won't talk, won't make eye contact and can't be bothered with theater games or fairy tales. The directors have two days to cajole them to write short plays and act them out.
Their message is consistent: We care about you, and it's important for people to hear what you have to say. Your story matters.
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