For more than one night
A push for an integrated prom prompts a TV movie on former Washington Youth Tour delegates
BY JACKIE KENNEDY
Editor's Note: Washington Youth Tour (WYT) delegates have gone on to do outstanding things. Many have become leaders in their communities; some have become congressmen; all describe their WYT experience as life-changing. This issue, we catch up with two past WYT delegates, both sponsored by Reynolds-based Flint Energies -- 1988 delegate Shandra Hill Smith and 2002 delegate Gerica McCrary -- whose lives were captured in a Lifetime television movie last February. For more on the WYT, what it is and how to apply, see www.youthtour.coop.
Gerica McCrary just wanted all her friends, black and white, at the prom.
That simple desire back in 2002 led to a myriad of events: Taylor County High School's first integrated prom, media attention that spanned the planet and a television movie starring Raven-Symoné (originally from Atlanta) as Gerica.
Only 17 when her saga began, Gerica now has had time to reflect. On the prom, she says: "This is something that will stick with our class forever. We overcame obstacles that had never been challenged, and our first time challenging it, we defeated it and it left a mark in history and many, many memories."
On the media frenzy: "It was shocking when it went worldwide, not only in the United States but across the globe. We knew then our story had a strong impact."
And on "For One Night," the TV movie based on her story and that of fellow alumna Shandra Hill Smith: "That's still sinking in."
Gerica, who turns 22 Sept. 5 and is now junior at Columbus State University, says she was "totally shocked" when she first learned that Taylor County High's prom was segregated, even though the school itself had been integrated for three decades.
"If we live in the same community and attend the same schools, why do we need separate proms?" she questioned.
As she entered her junior year, what she saw as incongruity -- students together in every way but prom -- continued to bug her.
"We had a close-knit class," she says. "We hung out together, listened to the same music, went to each other's houses. It wasn't clicking in my mind that we'd need separate proms in the new millennium."
Her junior class in 2001-02 approached their prom the way previous junior classes had, with separate meetings -- one black, one white -- to plan separate proms and private events that were not school-sponsored. Gerica and fellow black classmates discussed theme, location and menu -- everything they'd need to hold their own prom. But that, she recalls, was plan B.
"We had enough money to throw two proms, but it was the principle of the thing, to make it right," she says. "So we decided to focus instead on Plan A, the integrated prom." She penned a letter to students suggesting combining proms and was met with varied responses.
"Some kids balled up the letter and threw it down," she recalls, "but finally someone came forward and said, 'Hopefully we can get together on this.'"
A joint class meeting ensued with blacks and whites discussing the possibility of an integrated prom. "Most were for it, some just wanted to go to prom, and some had to be convinced," says Gerica. "I said, 'I promise you, this will be the best prom ever.'"
Shandra Hill Smith, like Gerica, grew up in Butler. After graduating from Taylor County High in 1989, she'd earned a journalism degree at Georgia State University and was working as a freelance writer in Atlanta when her mother called in April 2002 with hometown news. When she heard her alma mater's upcoming prom would be integrated, the writer knew it was a national news story.
"Gerica simply saw it as standing up and doing the right thing," says Shandra. "To me, it was news because it was history in the making."
Before that April day was done, the ever-consummate reporter was on the phone with Gerica, expressing her interest in pitching the story to her media contacts. (In "For One Night," Shandra shares the story without the student's knowledge, one of several fabrications in the movie.)
"Shandra was someone I could turn to," says Gerica. "It was great to have someone who believed in what we were doing."
When she was a student at Taylor County High, separate proms and segregated senior superlatives had been the norm, says Shandra, adding, "Later, after I'd met people from other parts of the country, I began to view things differently."
Before long, the story of Taylor County High's first integrated prom was featured on CNN, "Good Morning America," numerous other broadcasts, in magazines and newspapers, and on the Internet.
"It was crazy," Gerica recalls. "At one point, I got overwhelmed. It was too much publicity -- we just wanted to have a prom."
As liaison between the high school student and the media, Shandra intercepted phone calls and provided reporters with background information. The biggest challenge, says the writer and media-relations professional, "was trying to accommodate journalists but, at the same time, be strong for Gerica. It became a pressure-cooker for both of us."
It's the nature of a pressure-cooker to produce, though. And these two ladies relished the results.
Gerica had promised her classmates their history-making prom would be the best ever. And by all accounts, it was.
Held at the Sheraton Hotel in Columbus, the prom had all the elements of a great party -- good music, fine food, loads of laughter and dancing among friends. But for this year's prom, there was an added feature.
"We felt like we were walking on the red carpet," says Gerica. "It's like the paparazzi were interviewing us before we could get in the door. It was the most cameras ever at our prom."
In 2003, Gerica was devastated when separate proms returned. The previous year's prom theme had been, "Make it last forever." But it seemed, as the movie title states, it had only lasted "for one night."
"About 50 white students from that year's junior class decided to have their own private event," Gerica recalls. "We had the school-sponsored prom and they had a private party. It hurt a lot of feelings. Some went to both proms, and some were so confused, they didn't go to either one."
Again, Shandra found herself tipping off media contacts. Ultimately, media coverage prompted the U.S. Justice Department to step in, and, since 2004, Taylor County High's proms have been integrated and held on campus as school-sponsored events.
In June 2005, Gerica and Shandra visited New Orleans where Lifetime was filming the movie based on their story. It's highly fictionalized, says Shandra, "but the heart of the story is there; it's about people desiring change and how they bring about that change."
As someone who, as a youth, watched Raven-Symoné on "The Cosby Show," meeting her in person was surreal, according to Shandra. And having Aisha Tyler portray her in the movie? Again, surreal.
On meeting the star of the Disney Channel's "That's So Raven," Gerica recalls Raven-Symoné enthusiastically introducing her to the cast and crew. "This is Gerica, you guys," the star actress reportedly squealed. It's a moment Gerica says she'll never forget.
"After the movie, when I went home to visit, people told me 'Thank you,'" says Shandra. Everything considered, "it wasn't a process that was smooth all the way through, but I don't think there's anything in life worth having that is."
Gerica is thoughtful when asked to summarize events.
"It's still so new," she finally says. "It's one of those things you gauge years down the road. I think I'll have to give it some time to see if we've really left an impact on the school and my class of 2003."
Jackie Kennedy is a freelance writer living in LaGrange.
A trip down Memory Lane
BY SHANDRA HILL SMITH
Unquestionably, the Washington Youth Tour (WYT) experience is one of my most memorable and meaningful. A pyramid-shaped award, one of two tangible prizes I received for being selected [by Flint Electric Membership Corp., now Flint Energies] for the 1988 Youth Tour, symbolizes the significance. The small award has followed me for two decades -- always holding a prominent place in my abodes. It's a reminder of the special meaning the trip took on for me at that time, particularly since I came from a rural background.
Though I was one of the fortunate few who knew early on -- in my case, by middle school -- what I wanted for my professional future, I gained a renewed sense of confidence through the Youth Tour.
During June 12-17, 1988, I joined 50 other Georgia youths -- many of whom, before long, became my new friends -- for an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation's capital. Following a kick-off breakfast in Atlanta, we boarded a Delta Air Lines flight and were on our way. Stops included a guided tour of the White House, the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, the National Cathedral, the FBI Building and the Smithsonian Institution.
We also spent time inside the Senate Chambers while the Senate was in session and had an opportunity to meet a number of lawmakers, including Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.). I treasure a personal snapshot of him on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Other highlights included a moonlight cruise on the Potomac River, an evening out to see my first musical, "Cats," at the National Theatre, and a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. There, I successfully searched for the name of my great uncle, Army Sgt. 1st Class Clifton Walker (E7, 82nd Airborne Division), who lost his life while serving in the Vietnam War. The opportunity to find his name, then trace it in pencil, proved poignant.
Since 1988, I have returned to Washington, D.C., and had the honor of reliving a pair of my experiences. As a journalist, I interviewed Lewis for a magazine article eight years after my opportunity of a lifetime. Also, years after the trip, I made a trek to see, through adult eyes, "Cats" at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
Whether it's the onstage performance by a few feline friends, or something else, any reminder of that special time in the '80s is welcome. After all, rarely does a single experience have such a lasting impact.
Shandra Hill Smith is a freelance writer and media-relations professional in Atlanta. She writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta goodlife Magazine, and national magazines Upscale and Brides Noir. Smith is author of the book "Actions Speak Louder," and has also worked as a broadcast writer and on-air reporter.