documenting one of the last segregated proms in georgia
After receiving a letter from a white girl who couldn’t bring her black boyfriend to prom, photographer Gillian Laub traveled to a small town in Montgomery County and discovered a community with deep racial problems.
For 13 years, New York-based photographer Gillian Laub was a regular at the AmericInn motel in Vidalia, Georgia. In late spring, rooms would book up months in advance because of crowds arriving for the annual Vidalia Onion Festival. But for the nearby community of Mount Vernon (pop. 2,301), April was also prom season.
Laub's resulting project, Southern Rites, documents the transition from the 2002 segregated homecoming at Mount Vernon's Montgomery County High School to its first integrated prom in 2010 and beyond. It spans more than a decade of her own life and that of the small rural town — a place where women can still be spotted wearing confederate-flag tank tops. And it goes on to tell the story of the 2011 killing of Justin Patterson, a young black man who was shot by a white man whose daughter he was involved with. Patterson had been the prom date and first love of Keyke Burns, one of the Montgomery County students with whom Laub had become especially close.
Laub's images capture both the intense relationships between the high school's students — most notably those of the few, secret mixed-race couples she first met — but also the ties she herself formed with the community. And it was Laub's images, published first as a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine in 2009 (one day after the collaborating students had graduated), that triggered the town's decision to reassess its custom of holding a "White Prom" and a "Black Prom" and crowning both a "White Girl" and a "Black Girl" homecoming queen.
Laub's video documentary, also called Southern Rites, premiered in May and the accompanying images are currently on display at Benrubi Gallery in New York. Today, as the final part of the project launches, a monograph (available now through Damiani), we spoke to Gillian about what's changed since 2002.
Does the release of the book feel like any kind of conclusion?
Over the past 13 years, I have been able to witness the changes in this community and share the stories of people who generously opened their lives to me. But it's a complicated story. Niesha, who was the 2009 prom queen at the black prom, said in 2011 that she felt proud that the proms were finally integrated and that she was a part of that change, but she was also devastated that her close friend Justin Patterson had been killed. She said, "we take one step forward and two steps back." I found that really powerful. So it's difficult to make finite conclusions, but the kids in the community continue to give me hope that progress will continue.
Can you talk about your first visit to Mount Vernon in 2002?
I learned about Mount Vernon and the area because one very brave student from Montgomery County High School wrote a letter to SPIN magazine (a publication she subscribed to) asking for someone to come to her town and show the world what was going on there. It was a cry for help. She was devastated about not being able to take her boyfriend to the prom because he was black and she was white and they had segregated proms.
By the time I learned about the letter, her prom had passed. But the next segregated event was homecoming, so I went to Montgomery County in the autumn of 2002 to photograph the segregated homecoming festivities. I was both fascinated and haunted by Montgomery County and needed to dig deeper in order to understand how the members of this community were choosing to segregate their kids. It felt like the segregated rituals were a symptom of something much larger. There was also a dissonance in the fact that this community seemed a lot more integrated than most places I'd ever been — including my own city, New York — but that there were also more overt displays of racism than I had ever witnessed.
How many mixed-race couples did you meet? To what extent were kids going against against the town's customs?
I met a lot people who would only be private about their mixed relationship. But it didn't feel like an act of rebellion — it truly felt like they were scared of the repercussions from their parents and the community. These kids all grew up together and had known each other since kindergarden yet there was a line in their interactions that some parents wanted to draw and would go to great lengths to do so. But things have changed and now I see a lot of public mixed relationships, something that I would only very, very rarely see when I first visited in 2002.
What was behind the decision to unite the proms after the 2009 New York Times Magazine piece came out? Was there a real change in the community's beliefs, or was it a question of public perception?
I think most of the students wanted to have a single prom together with their friends. But it was only when the parents, who were in control and fighting to keep the tradition, realised that the rest of the country thought it was reprehensible that they decided to change things.
At one point in the documentary, a video camera is knocked out of your hands — what happened?
I was attacked by the county Sheriff for filming and photographing a public parade. This was an authority figure who was supposed to be protecting my rights, not violating them, so that was pretty scary — mostly because it became real then: I could finally understand first-hand the fear people that talked about.
The release of the documentary and now the book are coinciding with a really heated time in the US, with everything that's happening in Baltimore and Ferguson, and just last week in Dallas. What does this mean for the book? What do you hope people take away from the project as a whole?
It seems like this awareness and consciousness has opened up now and people have begun to talk about these very serious issues. Shootings of unarmed black men have been happening for way too long. It's hopeful that people are paying attention now. When I began working on Southern Rites in 2002, nobody seemed comfortable with talking about racial issues in this country. ["Race"] almost felt like a dirty word. Now it's part of the conversation and that's certainly a step in the right direction.
'Southern Rites' is on show now through July 4 at Benrubi Gallery, 521 West 26th Street, New York.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Gillian Laub / courtesy Benrubi Gallery