We are well into prom season again, with teens around the country facing the daunting questions of what to wear, whom to ask (or accept) as a date, and how to "prompose." As recently as 2009, students of Georgia's Montgomery County High School grappled with even more complications if their date of choice was of a different race than they were. Somehow, bafflingly, the high school clung to its tradition of holding racially segregated proms — well into the 21st century.
In May of 2009, exactly six years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran "A Prom Divided," a photo essay by Gillian Laub that highlighted the high school's segregated proms and homecomings. News of the practice rippled across the country, and widespread shock followed. Laub, now a Getty Images Reportage photographer, tells me that she was taken aback by the endurance of this tradition, too. "I was surprised by the fear that the older generation had tried so hard to instill into the younger generation. Fear of change. Fear of the other," she says. "But, I was equally amazed by the students, the younger generation, for trying to make a change and for seeing things differently than many parents." Under pressure, Montgomery County High integrated prom the following year, and Laub returned to document this triumph. When she arrived at the school, however, she was not welcomed.
"The sheriff came in and attacked me and took my camera equipment," Laub shares. "That was pretty scary, because he's a person of authority that's supposed to protect citizens' rights, and instead he was violating them." The incident is captured in the opening moments of Laub's debut film, the documentary Southern Rites, which aired on HBO this past Monday. Barred from access to the prom, Laub turned her attention to another gripping and little-heard local story: that of a 22-year-old black man, Justin Patterson, who was fatally shot by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man.
Eventually, Laub was able to photograph the 2011 and 2012 integrated proms at Montgomery County High, and the photos that follow here trace the evolution of the iconic high school event in this corner of the South. "The future seems hopeful," Laub comments. "Many students texted me photos from this year's prom — the fifth integrated prom — of the prom king and queen, a mixed couple, and they said, 'Look, it’s really happening!'" Laub's photos are now part of the book Southern Rites; her website calls the project a "visual study of one community's struggle to confront long-standing issues of race and equality" as collected in Laub's book and on display at Benrubi Gallery. Click through for 10 of the photos that opened the country's eyes to persistent racism — but also progress — in one Georgia community.