Below is a text accessible version of the Southern Rites virtual gallery.
“Southern Rites” opened October 15, 2020 and ran through December 12, 2020. The exhibition features the work of American photographer, Gillian Laub, who has spent the last two decades investigating political conflicts, exploring family relationships, and challenging assumptions about cultural identity. In “Southern Rites,” Laub photographed the lives of teenagers in Mount Vernon, Georgia from 2002 to 2011, focusing specifically on the high school homecoming and proms that were still racially segregated in the early 2000s. By 2010, the proms were finally integrated, only for tragedy to strike again a year later with the shooting and killing of Justin Patterson, a twenty-two-year-old unarmed African American man— whose segregated high school homecoming Laub had photographed.
Laub’s labels and artist statements are listed below with a brief visual description of her installation. To learn more about Laub’s work click here.
Each label features a quote from the person or people in the portrait, their name and age, and the date.
The opening wall of the exhibition features the title vinyl that reads “Southern Rights, Gillian Laub,” the opening didactic text, and one photograph. The beginning of the exhibition carries into the first room with two photographs and a text vinyl on the wall. Below is the text from the opening didactic.
(Maya Benton, Curator)
American photographer Gillian Laub (b. 1975) has spent the last two decades investigating political conflicts, exploring family relationships, and challenging assumptions about cultural identity. In Southern Rites, Laub engages her skills as a photographer, filmmaker, and visual activist to examine the realities of racism and raise questions that are simultaneously painful and essential to understanding the American consciousness.
In 2002, Laub was sent on a magazine assignment to Mount Vernon, Georgia, to document the lives of teenagers in the American South. The town, nestled among fields of Vidalia onions, symbolized the archetype of pastoral, small town American life. The Montgomery County residents Laub encountered were warm, polite, protective of their neighbors, and proud of their history. Yet Laub learned that the joyful adolescent rites of passage celebrated in this rural countryside– high school homecomings and proms– were still racially segregated.
Laub continued to photograph Montgomery County over the following decade, returning even in the face of growing–and eventually violent– resistance from community members and local law enforcement. She documented a town held hostage by the racial tensions and inequities that scar much of the nation’s history. In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Laub’s photographs of segregated proms were published in the New York Times Magazine. The story brought national attention to the town and the following year the proms were finally integrated. The power of her photographic images served as the catalyst and, for a moment, progress seemed inevitable.
Then, in early 2011, tragedy struck the town. Justin Patterson, a twenty-two-year-old unarmed African American man–whose segregated high school homecoming Laub had photographed–was shot and killed by a sixty-two-year-old white man. Laub’s project, which began as an exploration of segregated high school rituals, evolved into an urgent mandate to confront the painful realities of discrimination and structural racism. Laub continued to document the town over the following decade, during which the country re-elected its first African American president and the ubiquity of camera phones gave rise to citizen journalism exposing racially motivated violence. As the Black Lives Matter Movement and national protests proliferated, Laub uncovered a complex story about adolescence, race, the legacy of slavery, and the deeply rooted practice of segregation in the American South.
“Southern Rites” is a specific story about twenty-first century young people in the American South, yet it poses a universal question about human experience: can a new generation liberate itself from a harrowing and traumatic past to create a different future?
“Southern Rites” is organized by the International Center of Photography, New York and Curator Maya Benton.
(End of didactic text)
Felicia after the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of a young, Black girl standing in front of a building and posing with her hand on her hip in her sequined silver prom dress. Her dark hair is in a bun and she is wearing large silver earrings and a short necklace, a white corsage on her left wrist, and silver high heels.
(Felicia, age 16, 2009)
I helped plan the Black prom this year. There is always talk about planning prom together but it never happens. There are always arguments about it. We start raising money for it the summer before, but the white kids don’t have to because their parents just give them the money for it. So they don’t have to worry about it like we do. They say the class next year will be the ones to change things, but I don’t believe it until I see it.
Shelby on her grandmother’s car, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2008
An image of a young, white girl with dark brown hair wearing blue jeans and a confederate flag tube tank top. She is outside, leaning against a bright red car and there is a sign in the background that reads “Sons of Confederate Veterans, Join Now!”
(Shelby, age 16, 2008)
If I want to show the rebel flag, I’m going to, because that’s my heritage. All these people who run around screaming that the Confederate flag is racist, they’re not stupid, they’re ignorant. Because ignorance is the absence of really knowing what happened. I am not going to hide it from nobody.
(Shelby, age 24, 2016)
The crazy guy who killed people in South Carolina was insane, not racist. People keep saying that because he posted the Confederate flag on Facebook the shooting was a racist act. That’s so ignorant of them. It’s stupid that people are getting hysterical over the Confederate flag, I will continue to wear my clothes with it. To me it symbolizes my Southern heritage. The Civil War was about much more than slavery.
Julie and Bubba, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2002
An image of a young, Black man who is wearing a black shirt and has a black afro comb in his hair. He is affectionately resting his chin on the shoulder of a young, white girl and holding her hand. The girl has long brown hair and is wearing large gold hoop earrings and a black sports jersey with the number 24. They are standing outside in front of a blue car.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Bubba and Julie.
(Bubba, age 15, 2002)
I feel bad that Julie can’t tell her parents about us, since we’ve been together for a couple years. I know she’s not embarrassed; it’s just hard for people of that generation to be okay with mixed couples here. Julie always comes to my place and is welcome on this of the tracks. She’s just cool, not a color.
(Julie, age 17, 2005)
Bubba was my first love. We dated from eighth grade until my junior year of high school. Some friends started to tell me they couldn’t hang out with me anymore. That hurt, because they were my friends since kindergarten. I didn’t think they were bad people, just scared.
(Bubba, age 29, 2016)
Things in Montgomery County have gotten a little better. When I dated Julie in high school, the principal got involved [by repeatedly warning Julie’s parents that we should not be dating], and I don’t think that would happen today. These days I see a lot of mixed couples walking down the street who don’t seem scared. When we dated we were scared. I still talk to Julie every week. We’ve stayed real tight over the years.
(Julie, age 28, 2016)
Living in Atlanta has been so much easier for me. I never feel uncomfortable when my [African American] boyfriend Travis and I are in public–no glaring, no stares, no eye-rolling. But I know racism still exists here, it’s just that people are less open about it. I am a nurse, and I’ve been at work with people who don’t know me that well, they just see an educated professional–and they slip in racist comments without realizing that it’s very offensive to me. It doesn’t cross their minds that I wouldn’t naturally agree with them since I am white.
Loose leaf vinyl
A vinyl reproduction of two pieces of loose leaf paper, which appear to be a journal entry from a class at one of the schools in Mount Vernon, Georgia. The writing on the paper is copied below.
Mrs. Brewer — please read this one if no other one.
May 3, 1999
I really don’t care if I have written on this as a journal topic before, which I believe I have; this is an important issue to me (note that I say an important issue, not just a topic). The proms at our school are extremely sorry. The whole situation is ludicrous. I find it ridiculous that the students at our school can find in themselves the barbaric (or, should I say, the pre-civil war/rights) mindset to keep the proms segregated.
I for one boycotted the prom and even though I do feel strongly on this issue, I promise you that it was still really hard to know that I was missing my Junior prom. I have no memories to think back on. I have no pictures to show my children. I have no dried flowers to treasure. I own no dress to take out and try on. I have no funny stories to relay. I MISSED MY OWN JUNIOR PROM. I do have my morals.
I choose to think on the other side of this situation. I CAN tell my children that I had strong morals. I DID stand up for something I believed in. I WAS raised in the deep south, but was unaffected by its strange (demented??) ideas.
Still, I honestly don’t think that any of this is particularly fair. If the proms are going to continue to be separate, then I would like to insist that the school at least sponsor a “together” prom for those of us who have a problem w/ the way things continue to be.
Next year, if the proms are still segregated, I refuse to sit back and miss my Senior prom. I WILL WRITE LETTERS. Wouldn’t I just love to bring down the NAACP and other such affiliations? As for the way things are now, it’s one big (if not horrific) joke, and an embarrassment to this establishment.
P.S. Though this does reflect my opinions, my views are shared by many both inside and outside the school and frankly, I think that I speak for all of us when I use the term, FED-UP!
[At the bottom of the second piece of loose leaf, Mrs. Brewer appears to have left comments in response to this students journal entry. The teacher’s comments are copied below.]
In 1995 the school had a prom for everyone here at school. The Blacks came and one white couple came. White parents were angry with the principal for pushing this and his contract was not renewed.
The Student Council had a student referendum in 1996 on having a school prom and it was overwhelmingly defeated by both Blacks and whites. It will eventually be a reality.
(End of vinyl text)
The second section of the exhibition consists of a text didactic, ten photographs, and a glass vitrine with facsimile objects in the first room.
Adolescents participate in elaborate coming-of-age rituals in myriad ways. In Montgomery County, Georgia, prom is the primary community event and bittersweet rite of passage that celebrates the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. Prom, as one student observed, “is everything around here in this small town.”
Photographer Gillian Laub spent more than a decade capturing an unmistakably American tradition. She documented young love, parental pride, and the bonds of friendship. Exploring fears and anxieties, forbidden relationships, fantasies, and hopes for the future Laub chronicled the anticipation of finding that perfect dress, the sumptuous hair and makeup, coordinated outfits, extravagant cars, and the months spent fundraising to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Year after year, Laub photographed Montgomery County’s close-knit community of students who had been in school together since kindergarten. Yet, each year, African American and white students celebrated prom separately.
(End of didactic text)
Lacy, the Black prom queen, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2008
An image of a young, Black girl who is wearing a silver dress, a tiara, silver heels, a white corsage, and a pink sash that says “MGHS Prom.”. She is sitting on a chair inside of a banquet hall and looking directly into the camera with an unfazed expression. She is surrounded by long tables with white table covers and there is a white gift bag and two white balloons on the ground by her feet.
(Lacy, age 18, 2008)
The first time I paid attention to politics was when Obama was running. I remember being in social studies class, and the teacher was saying it was ridiculous that he was running because he was Muslim and not from here. It felt really wrong, and I wanted to say something because I thought it was just racism and hostility. But since everyone was white, except one other student, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to speak up. I remember both of us looking at each other in disbelief, hoping the other would say something, but neither of us did.
(Lacy, age 26, 2016)
I was always inspired by Nelson Mandela and his belief that education was everything. I knew it was important to leave Montgomery County after graduation and be exposed to the larger world. I went to Spellman College in Atlanta and then law school at Emory. I still go back home every other month. It’s where my whole family is, and I want to be a good role model for my nieces and nephews. I want to help keep their eyes open. I didn’t have that when I was growing up. For example, I was just so excited to finally get to go to prom that I didn’t want to fight an uphill battle to integrate it that would have ruined my senior year. A lot of people have to fight for survival and fight through poverty, so fighting racism here is not at the top of their list. When you are in the day-to-day battle of poverty and making ends meet, that trumps the racial issues, even though, at the end of the day, they are connected.
Harley getting ready for the white prom in the Cut-N-Up tanning and hair salon, Vidalia, Georgia, 2008
An image of a young, white girl who is wearing a silver necklace, a pink collared shirt, and her long blond hair styled a low bun. The girl is sitting in a hair salon and looking at her reflection in a mirror. The edges of the mirror are covered in prom, graduation, and other high school photographs and there is a counter protruding from under the mirror on the wall that is cluttered with hair products, combs, and tools.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Harley and her mother, Anita.
(Harley, age 17, 2009)
It’s always been segregated. There’s always been two separate proms. It doesn’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s just what we know and what our parents have done for so many years. It’s not about being racist. We’re in the same classes; we eat lunch together and sit at the same tables. It’s not about what color you are. It’s about your attitude, how you present yourself, and you take care of yourself. It’s not about if you are Black or white.
(Anita, Harley’s mother, 2009)
This community and this school system is fine how it is. This is the way they have done it ever since there was a prom. So it’s worked for them this way. Why try and fix something that’s not broken? The kids are perfectly fine with it. Every year, when it comes to planning for the prom, you have the white kids that start planning for their prom and you have the Black kids that start planning theirs. It’s fine having things the way it’s been done for however long. Leave it alone. We don’t want to change it.
Angel outside the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of a young, Black girl who is wearing a bright turquoise prom dress with sequin on the neck strap. Her hair is straightened and she is looking directly into the camera with a defiant expression. The girl is standing outside and is surrounded by a few other prom goers who are out of frame.
(Angel, age 17, 2009)
Last night we went to see all our friends at the senior walk, and after the father-daughter dance all the Black kids were asked to leave. Yeah, that was upsetting. I am worried to talk about it because I don’t want to jeopardize my future here. We moved here because my dad got the assistant principal job at the middle school. He was very active in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] chapter here, but then he got discouraged. I think his job depended on him keeping quiet. I’ve heard it being said that it’s a white person’s game, and you just have to learn to play it.
(Angel, age 24, 2016)
This community has recently come together, and it seems like, however small, the changes are happening. I am a seventh-grade teacher and also a pre-med student by night, really trying to get the most out of this life. I feel proud that one day I can tell my children that I helped make a change by using my voice. If my friends and I didn’t speak out, there’s a good chance the proms would still be segregated.
Shaniqua and Keyke before the Black prom, Mount Vernon, Georgia 2008
An image of two Black girls posing in a parking lot and wearing their prom dresses. The girl on the left is wearing a silver, sequined dress and long silver earrings. Her short curly hair is up and she is wearing blue eyeshadow. The girl on the right is wearing a dark blue dress with silver sequins. She has a white corsage on her left wrist and has curled short brown hair. The girls stand facing one another and looking straight into the camera.
(Keyke, age 17, 2008)
The store manager where I work was asking why we care that we are having separate proms. I was like, “Why don’t you care?” He said, “Well, it’s always been like that.” And I say, “Well, why not make a change?” They really don’t get it. The white people don’t see it as a problem.
Every year there’s, like, one mixed couple, and they are always welcome at our prom. White girls can be friends with Black boys, but if they have a relationship with a Black guy, they’ll be disowned. The momma of a girl in my grade kept coming to my daddy, because he’s the police chief, asking him to keep her away from this Black guy’s house. This girl got her car taken away and kicked out of the house. She is on her own now, with no money, no car. I think that’s what scares people the most around here. They don’t want to lose all the privileges they get. I guess I don’t blame them. I want a nice car, too.
(Keyke, age 24, 2015)
I thought I’d move away for good. But I came back because this is home, and it was too hard to be far from my family. Black Lives Matter and all of the recordings of police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black men has been eye-opening for the country. The rest of the world is finally seeing what we’ve been dealing with forever.
Keyke and Kera in Dominique’s Personal Touch hair salon before the Black prom, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2009
This piece is composed of two separate images. The image on the left features a young, Black girl sitting under a hooded hair dryer in a salon. She has pink curlers in her hair and, in one hand, she is holding a white towel to the side of her face and, in the other, she is holding a cell phone to her ear, appearing to be in conversation. She has a discontent expression on her face. The image on the right features another young, Black girl, similarly sitting in a salon under a hooded hair dryer with pink curlers in her hair. She is also holding a cell phone to her ear and one hand slightly over her bottom lip. She has an intrigued, yet annoyed expression on her face.
(Keyke, left, age 18, 2009)
I told you it would still be segregated again this year. My cousin Kera and her friends are seniors. They are a really close class and are even more angry than we were [last year] about the proms not being together. They also tried to change things, but it didn’t work. This year both proms are on the same weekend. The white prom was yesterday and the Black prom is tonight, but in the same location, the Vidalia Community Center.
(Kera, right, age 17, 2009)
It’s stupid that they won’t let us dance together. When we were sophomores we talked about doing it together. We said we’ll be the class to make a change since we are all really close. But then when it came down to it, it was difficult because the white parents give the money for their proms, so they are controlling it, and we have to start fundraising months before. We do car washes, bake sales, whatever it takes. We worked so hard to raise the money. The white students just asked their parents for the money.
(Kera, age 24, 2016)
Homecomings and proms are now integrated and I feel really good that I was part of that change, that our prom was the last segregated prom. But I honestly think that if we didn’t speak out and shine a light, everything would still be segregated. The mentality is still the same. The Black Lives Matter movement didn’t really help us around here.
Skyla (red dress) and her friends on the dance floor at the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of five people at the Black prom. They are standing at the edge of the dance floor, appearing to be looking in at those dancing in the middle of the floor. The two young, Black girls on the left are wearing silver jewelry, white corsages and one is wearing a white dress, while the other is wearing a dark blue dress. They both are looking forward and appear to be quite focused on what is happening beyond the camera. The young, white girl in the middle is wearing silver jewelry, a white corsage, and a bright red dress. Her brown hair is curled and falls to her shoulders and she appears to be swaying to the music, and looking beyond the camera with subtle interest. On the right are two young, Black boys. One is wearing a white dress shirt, a red vest, and a red tie and his hair is in short dreads. He is holding two balloons, one white and one red, and he is looking down at the second boy, who is much younger and walking out of frame.
(Skyla, age 18, 2009)
I got to go to both proms. I was lucky. I couldn’t take my boyfriend, Barry, to the white prom the night before, though. My white friends probably think I am weird for dating a Black boy, but I don’t care. I am not sure if it’s racist. My parents are different. They don’t see color and are open-minded. My sister lives with her girlfriend, and they are supportive of her, too.
(Skyla, age 25, 2016)
It’s been eight years, and Barry and I are still together. We just had our third child. Raising biracial kids here is much better these days than it was just ten years ago. It feels like there are more mixed kids than not, which makes me happy. Sometimes I feel like Barry’s family doesn’t accept me fully because I am white, but I hope they see how good we are together.
Prom king and queen, dancing at the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of a young Black boy and young, Black girl, who are the king and queen of the Black prom dancing. The image shows a close up of the back of the prom king who has his arms around the queen. An elaborate crown that is red and gold sits on his head. The prom queen’s arms are wrapped around his shoulders to show her silver ring and long nails that are painted pink. The prom queen’s face is visible over the prom king’s right shoulder. She is looking down and wearing her dark curly hair up and a silver, jeweled tiara on her head.
(Niesha, prom queen, age 17, 2009)
I believe we have a long way to go with racism here. It’s better than when my momma was a kid, but we’re still having separate proms, aren’t we? We’ve grown up together, and now we can’t even spend this last night as a class before we graduate. I am graduating at the top of my class. I got a scholarship to the private college here, but I think I’d feel strange being one of the only Black girls there. So I decided to go to the military instead.
(Khiry, prom king, age 18, 2009)
Last night some of my best friends had their white prom, and I was kind of hurt that I couldn’t be with them and dance with them. That’s just the way things are around here. I hope when I’m a parent we’ll have one prom, Black and white, together.
(Khiry, age 25, 2016)
Right after graduation I came out to my family and friends. I was too scared to come out in high school. Being Black and gay is like two strikes against you around here. I moved away and now live with my boyfriend in Statesboro, Georgia. My sister is still in high school and she told me something sad. Her best friend’s mom– who is white– won’t let her sleep over at our house.
Harley before the white prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of a young, white girl who is wearing a black prom dress with a black and gold zebra print at the top. She is holding a bouquet of bright, yellow flowers and her designer handbag in one hand and fixing her long blond hair that she is wearing in a side ponytail with the other. The girl is standing outside in what appears to be the backyard of her house. On her one side, there is a row of well-manicured greenery and on her other side a large built-in swimming pool. Her house is behind her, surrounded by outdoor furniture and palm trees.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Harley and her father, Mitch.
(Harley, age 17, 2009)
Last year, when I was on prom committee, we raffled off a gun, car washes, gas tickets, and other stuff. The Black prom committee does the same for their prom, too. Everyone is happy how we do it. If my best friend, Kera, who is Black, was really serious about having the prom together then we’d probably have to talk it over with our parents, because that would be breaking our tradition that we’ve always had.
(Mitch, Harley’s father, 2009)
I don’t have a problem with Black and white relationships. I just worry about their youngins. I mean, if red birds and blue birds nest, will it come out with a red head and a blue ass? I mean, the red bird won’t want anything to do with it, and the blue bird is not going to mess with him. I just don’t feel like it’s right, for the youngins’ sake. If Harley liked a dark-skinned fella, that would be fine, but their youngin’, what are they gonna do? I don’t want people to make fun of that child, and they will. I seen it happen.
Siarra and Kent outside the Black prom, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2008
An image of a young, white girl who is wearing a gold, sequined dress and a large white corsage and a young, Black boy who is wearing a long-sleeve white shirt, black dress pants, a gold vest, and a striped gold and brown tie. They are each posing with one arm loosely around the other and softly smiling while looking into the camera. It appears to be nighttime, as they are standing outside in the dark.
(Siarra, age 17, 2008)
I’ve been with Kent for two years, but I couldn’t take him to the white folks’ prom a couple weeks ago. So I went alone. I am allowed to go with him to the Black prom, though, which is way more fun, anyway. What pissed me off is that all the teachers– who are mostly white– showed up for the white prom to take photos of their students, but I haven’t seen one of them show up at the Black prom for the rest of their students.
(Siarra, age 25, 2016)
Racism is always going to be an issue here, but things have gotten better. In high school, when people found out I was in an interracial relationship, my family especially, they were not accepting. They called me an N-love. I can’t even say that word. Now they’ve become much more open and accepting, so that’s a big deal.
Senior going to the white prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image of a young, white girl with her blond hair up in a bun who is wearing a white dress, a white corsage, and silver flat shoes. The girl is walking alone outside and it appears to be night, as her figure is only lit by a streetlamp.
The third section of the exhibition consists of a text didactic and one photograph in the first room. This section continues into the second room of the exhibition featuring eight images and a glass vitrine with facsimile objects.
The 2009 publication of Gillian Laub’s photographs of Montgomery Country’s segregated proms in the New York Times Magazine brought national attention to– and widespread condemnation of– the town and its practice of segregation. Readers inundated the town with hate mail. Hundreds of news organizations covered the story and the small town was thrust into national spotlight, mere months after the country had inaugurated its first African American president. Laub’s photographs had effectively shamed the white residents into changing the policy. As Donna, a Montgomery County High School student later recounted, “What we did with the prom was a start. Because we talked to you and shared our story… you put the mirror up, and it cracked.”
In 2010, Laub returned to Montgomery County to photograph the first integrated prom. Driven by her desire to capture the nuances of this complex community and its contested costumes, Laub also filmed the changes that were starting to take place in the county as a whole. She endured bullying and threats by local residents and law enforcement, who were furious that their cherished “traditions” were being challenged. Laub’s tires were slashes, and she received a barrage of intimidating, and often racist, sexist, and antisemitic phone calls, warning her to not return to Georgia. The photographer recalled, “There were people who would not talk to me because they were scared that their house would be burned down. There were stories of people just disappearing. I started to understand the fear that governed the lives of many of the country’s African American residents, especially its youth.
In 2011, the Montgomery County sheriff retaliated against Laub for filming Mount Vernon’s integrated homecoming– a public parade– by physically attacking her. He reached into the open window of the Laub’s vehicle shouting, “Give me your film!” and grabbed her camera and film equipment out of her hands as she screamed for help. Laub was handcuffed, and it took six months for her attorney to secure the return of her camera. She had surreptitiously ejected the memory card during the struggle and managed to record the entire incident. “The sheriff was an authority figure who was supposed to be protecting rights, not violating them,” Laub concluded. “There was nowhere to run. There was no one to help. The proms were a symptom of something much larger.”
(End of didactic text)
Amber and Reggie, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Black girl and a young, Black boy who are standing beside each other in the grass in front of a wood building. The girl is wearing a short blue dress with a bright pink sash around her waist. She has a corsage on her wrist and her hair is down with two barrettes on the side. Her bangs fall across her forehead. The boy is wearing a white dress shirt, blue tie, and black suit. He has a boutonniere on his jack and short buzzed hair with the shape of a star shaved out the side of his head.
Amber Jones died from complications of sickle-cell disease (SCD) in November 2012. She was eighteen years old.
(Amber, age 16, 2011)
Last year, when we had the first integrated prom, I couldn’t go. I was in the hospital after a flare-up from my sickle-cell anemia. I was devastated that I missed out on history being made. Prom is everything around here in this small town, and I am just happy we finally came together.
(Reggie, age 18, 2011)
When I met Amber in middle school we immediately hit it off. I am from Laurens Country, just about thirty minutes away from Mount Vernon. My mom used to get her hair done at Amber’s mom’s salon, Dominique’s.
(Reggie, age 23, 2016)
I think Amber was embarrassed that she had sickle-cell, so she didn’t tell me until she ended up in the hospital. I wish I knew, so I could have been there for her before it was too late and she passed away. I think about her and miss her every day. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
Montgomery County Training School / The 1958 Tiger, volume 1, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1957-58 / Published by the senior class when the county’s schools were still segregated
A yearbook lies open in the glass vitrine in the center of the room. The right page features a black and white photograph of students walking into a school building. Text below the photo reads “The 1958 Tiger, Published by the Senior class of Montgomery County High and Elementary School.” There is an illustration of a tiger mascot below the text. On the left page, there is text that is titled “Class History,” which recounts some of the senior class’s achievements over the past four years and “Class Prophecy,” which lists what occupation each senior might have in the future and where they will live.
Yearbook page with class history and prophet (facsimile) and yearbook introduction page with photograph of members of the senior class
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, declared that all state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students were unconstitutional. The unanimous decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, a longstanding 1896 Supreme Court decision that permitted state sponsored segregation in public schools.
In defiance of the Brown decision, which proclaimed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Montgomery County’s schools remained segregated until 1971; there was one school for white students, Montgomery County High School, and another for Black students, Montgomery County Training School.
In 1958, thirty-seven seniors graduated from the county’s all-Black school. That year, the African American students raised enough money to publish their first school yearbook, The Tiger. The yearbook included a history of the class, stories about the students, and poignant prophecies about the future of each graduating African American student.
Montgomery County High School Yearbook, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1971-72 / Published by the senior class the year the county’s schools were integrated
A yearbook lies open in the glass vitrine and the left page features two black and white photographs. One is of the Black prom queen and the other is of the white prom queen. On the right page there are seven black and white photographs of what appears to be the school’s cheerleading team.
Yearbook spread featuring Trudy Pearl Lee and Rhonda Williams, the Black and white homecoming queens of Montgomery County High School’s first integrated class
Montgomery County integrated its public schools in 1971, seventeen years after the Supreme Court declared that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The first integrated senior class included thirty Black students and forty-nine white students, and from the outset the proms and homecoming festivities were segregated, as they were in many other counties in Georgia and throughout the American South.
Anna Rich / School-assigned journal entry, Montgomery County High School, Mount Vernon, Georgia, June 3, 1999
A letter written on two pages of loose leaf paper lies in the glass vitrine. This is the original letter that is featured as a wall vinyl at the beginning of the exhibition. The content of that letter is copied at the top of this page under “Loose leaf vinyl.”
Notebook paper facsimile (recto) and facsimile (verso) with teacher’s grade and comments
Anna Rich was a high-school junior when she submitted this journal entry for a US history assignment. Rich and her sister, Julie, had moved to Montgomery County from Ecuador, where their parents had worked as missionaries. The Riches were shocked by the entrenched racism and segregation practices that they encountered in their adopted hometown.
In her class journal, Anna Rich wrote about her struggles to integrate the Black and white proms in Montgomery County and describes the fierce resistance that she encountered from many students, faculty, and parents. She received a grade of seventy-six percent, a C. It took another decade before Montgomery County finally integrated its proms.
Anna visiting her friends for homecoming weekend, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2002
A photograph in the glass vitrine of five people who are outside and leaning against a car. A young, white girl with curly, long brown hair who is wearing a white jersey with the number 24 and gray pants is posing with four boys. The young, Black boy to her right has short, dark hair and is wearing a white shirt and frayed jean shorts. On her left are three boys. The closest to her is a young, Black boy and he is sitting on top of the car and has his arms crossed. He is wearing baggy jeans and a white shirt. The next young, Black teenager is standing and wearing an oversized jean jacket with varsity letters and khaki pants. The third young, Black boy is standing with his arms folded and wearing a tan shirt with baggy, grey cargo pants.
Student activist Anna Rich devoted her junior and senior years of high school, from 1998 to 2000, to exhausting every possible avenue to bring an end to segregation at Montgomery County High School. Several weeks before her prom, Rich noticed an article in Spin magazine condemning random drug testing in American high schools. She wrote an impassioned letter to the editor, imploring him to write about what was happening in Montgomery County. Rich described her fury at being prohibited from bringing Lonnie, her African American boyfriend and classmate, to her prom, which she ultimately boycotted. Several months later, Rich received a response from Spin’s editor, but she had already graduated and moved out of town to attend Taccoa Falls College.
Two years later, Anna Rich’s younger sister, Julie, was a freshman at Montgomery County High School, where she confronted the same segregation and racism. Spin magazine decided to cover the story, and commissioned photographer Gillian Laub to travel to Georgia to document the town’s segregated homecoming rituals for the first time. Julie Rich provided the necessary introductions to the school administrators, students, and parents. Laub also photographed Anna Rich, who had returned to Montgomery County to visit her high school friends.
(Julie Rich, age 20, 2008)
I am proud of my sister Anna for being so brave and writing that letter. If it weren’t for her, who knows if anyone would’ve known or cared about what was going on here. I knew it wasn’t right when I received the ballot to vote in homeroom and one column was for a white girl and the other for a Black girl. I thought it was a joke. I asked people about it and they said it was a tradition in Montgomery County. I wasn’t born here so I didn’t know.
Pix Photography Studio / Julie Rich and Brandon Summerset, studio portrait taken the day of the Black prom, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2005 / Facsimile, laserjet print
A photograph in the glass vitrine of a young, Black boy and a young, white girl. The boy has his dreadlocks pulled back and he is wearing an all-white suit. The girl standing next to him is wearing a long bright pink dress and a pink corsage. Her brown hair is up in a bun and she is posing with her hand on her hip. The boy and the girl are brightly smiling and standing against a staged prom picture background that features white floors and walls with white columns wrapped in green vines.
(Julie Rich, age 20, May 2008)
We bought tickets to go to the Black prom, and everyone was super excited. None of my Black friends had any problem with me coming [to the Black prom], but when I went to buy tickets to the white prom, I was told, “Julie, if your date is Black, he isn’t going to be let in.” I decided to boycott the white prom, and Brandon and I went to the Black prom together.
One day I happened to be going to a friend’s funeral– it was something that the whole town was mourning– and when I walked to my car to drive to the funeral, I noticed that someone had put a picture of pornopgrahy on the window of my car, a picture of a white girl and a Black guy. And it scared me because that means in the middle of the night someone was in my driveway. Not only in my driveway, but in my driveway thinking about me and thinking about what they can do to hurt me, you know? There were other notes left on my mom’s car and our house but I never read them myself ‘cause my mom threw them away.
This concludes the objects in the vitrine, the gallery continues with more photographs on the wall.
Niesha with her children, Vidalia, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Black woman holding her small child while standing next to a very young boy. The woman wears a short, purple dress and pink fluffy shoes and stares seriously towards the camera. She wears her straight, black hair down and it falls on her shoulders. The small child in her arms is looking behind the woman and wears a white, patterned dress with no shoes. The little boy looks up to the sky and wears plaid shorts and white flip-flops. They stand in a grassy yard outside of a small light blue house.
(Niesha, age 19, 2011)
It feels like way more than two years since I was prom queen. So much has happened. I was discharged from the military when I found out I was pregnant with Zoey. The proms finally integrated. But it’s like we take one step forward and two steps back.
(Niesha, age 24, 2016)
I voted for the current mayor because he promised he would build parks for the kids on this side of town. We pay the same taxes as the white people in Montgomery County, but they seem to get all the nice parks. I have nowhere close to my house to take my kids to play. I wish I could say things are changing here, but it’s hard when the same people are controlling the system.
Keyontae, Lyons, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Black girl posing in a short yellow dress. Her curly brown hair is in an updo and she wears silver heels. She looks off to the right of the image and is standing in the middle of a curved road in front of a grassy plain.
(Keyontae, age 17, 2011)
I moved from Vidalia to Mount Vernon two years ago. In Vidalia there were three different proms– one for the Black students, one for the white, and one for the Hispanics. When I got here and there were only two, I wondered which prom the Mexican students will got to. They got to go to both! I guess nobody knew how to classify them so they got the best of both worlds. I heard they thought the Black prom was way more fun.
(Keyontae, age 22, 2016)
I finished four years in the military, and I absolutely loved it. It felt like a real family. One of the best aspects was being able to see the world and leave the small-town mentality. I met so many great people along the way and felt totally accepted. I no longer feel like every older white person is a racist. I am now in college and am studying to be a nurse focusing on respiratory rehabilitation. I want to make my family proud.
Qu’an and Brooke, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2012
An image of a young, Black boy and a young, white girl who are posing in the grass outside of a small white house. The boy wears a black suit with a white tie and holds the girl who wears a short, sparkling silver dress with a white sash and silver shoes. The boy has a buzzed haircut and the girl wears her blonde hair half pulled back.
(Qu’an, age 17, 2012)
Two years back, me and Brooke would never be able to go to prom together. It’s cool to be the first biracial couple to go to the prom together, but I think I’d still be scared to date most of the white girls in town because of their parents.
(Qu’an, age 21, 2016)
Just the other day Brooke picked me up to get something to eat, and we got pulled over for no reason. The cop barely said anything to her, but he pulled me out of the car and threw me against it very hard. I don’t know what he was looking for. But he was nasty, and it took all my strength to hold my tongue. He kept provoking me. I knew that all he wanted was some reason to arrest me, but I tried to stay calm and gave him no reason. It almost seems like cops have gotten more aggressive around here, even though you’d think the opposite would happen after all the incidents that were recorded this past year
Quanti on his cousin’s car, Lyons, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Black boy sitting on the back of a red car. The boy has buzzed hair with a star shaved into the side and wears an all white suit with a light yellow vest and tie. The car appears to be parked in a field.
(Quanti, age 16, 2011)
I am from Mount Vernon, the side of the train tracks where the Black folks live. I live with my mom, my grandma, and my sister Sahara. They make me go to church with them on Sundays, but I told them I won’t be able to make it this Sunday after prom. When I graduate I want to go to the military so I can see the world and meet people.
(Quanti, age 21, 2016)
I play basketball a few times a week, but the park on our side of town was closed while I was gone [in the military]. Now we have to use the court on the other side of town, where most of the white folks live, and it’s much nicer– they have tennis courts, a playground, and skateboarding ramps. But I make sure not to stay when it gets dark because I start getting looks from people like I’m gonna do something.
Rodrigo and Claudia attending the integrated prom, Lyons, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Mexican boy and a young, Mexican girl. The boy wears a black suit with a light blue tie and the girl wears a high-low dress of the same light blue with a thick sash and silver heels. The boy has short dark hair and wears sunglasses on his head and the girl wears her dark brown hair down in loose curls. They stand outside of a dark grey sports car.
Farming opportunities have attracted a growing number of Mexican immigrants to Montgomery and Toombs counties in the last three decades. Many members of this community do not have official government papers or green cars and struggle with precarious immigration statuses. Mexican American students– even those born in this country– were often uncomfortable participating in, and being interviewed for, this project, because they were concerned about the potential repercussions for members of their families.
Khiry, and African American student pictured as prom king in a nearby photograph, provides a classmate’s perspective on his Mexican American friends’ experiences in Montgomery County.
(Khiry, age 18, 2009)
There are three Mexicans students in our grade, and they went to both proms. The Mexicans are cool with both the Black and white kids. The separate proms didn’t seem to bother them because they are just happy to get along with everyone and be welcome at both. But I have a feeling that if the white kids knew the Mexican kids were also going to our prom, they wouldn’t let them attend theirs.
Seniors arriving at the first integrated prom, Lyons, Georgia, 2010
An image of three young, Black students dressed for prom. On the left of the image there is a young girl in a teal and gold animal print dress. She is only visible from shoulders to mid-thigh and wears a corsage which matches her dress and nails. She has a butterfly tattoo on the left side of her chest beneath her collarbone. In the center of the image, a young boy stands in a white suit with a bright pink vest and tie. He has buzzed hair and wears sunglasses and appears to be adjusting his jacket while walking. On the right side of the photograph, another young boy with buzzed hair and sunglasses walks and looks to the upper-right corner of the image. He wears a white suit with a light orange vest and tie. The three walk away from several cars parked in a field.
Dance floor at the integrated prom, Lyons, Georgia, 2011
An image of a large group of young, Black teenagers dancing at prom. A few white students are visible in the crowd. The image is shot from just above the student’s head and looks down on the group. A teenaged boy in a white shirt and blue vest dances on the right side of the image and extends his arm to the left, crossing over several student’s faces. The palm of a hand fills most of the far right side of the image. None of the students are looking towards the camera.
Prom prince and princess dancing at the integrated prom, Lyons, Georgia, 2011
An image of a young, Black boy and a young, white girl who are dancing. The boy faces the camera looking visibly nervous. He has buzzed hair and wears a white shirt with a light orange vest. The girl is facing away from the camera with her arms around the boy. Only her long curly blonde hair and her black dress are visible. She wears a tiara and a white sash.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Kayla and Quanti.
(Kayla, prom princess, age 17, 2011)
I guess it seems behind that we just integrated our proms this year. But it’s really common around here. All the schools in the surrounding counties just integrated their proms the past couple years, too. It didn’t seem racist because we really are a tight community. Quanti has been my close friend since kindergarten. It is great that we can all have this night together now.
(Quanti, prom prince, age 16, 2011)
Around here, prom is the biggest event we have. People plan all year for this night. It was real cool that all our classmates actually voted for me and Kayla to be crowned [junior prom prince and princess]. I was excited and surprised. Just a year or two ago we wouldn’t even be able to dance together. But I was real nervous ‘cause we had to have our dance alone, and everyone was there– all the parents, who were chaperones, including Kayla’s mom. And they were all watching us dance. I know her mom likes me, but I don’t think she’d be happy if we dated. Most of the white girls need to sneak around if they want to be with a Black boy.
(Quanti, age 21, 2016)
When I left the military and moved back to Mount Vernon I realized a lot of things, like when Obama was inaugurated. I was so excited, but I remember the teachers not letting us watch it in class because they said it was too disruptive. A lot of the Black kids at school were angry, so they left to watch it at home, but there were texts going around that it was “the iniggeration.”
Montgomery County High School Yearbook, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2003
This yearbook lies open in the glass vitrine and the left page features four black and white photographs. The first two are of a Black girl crowning the Black homecoming queen and of a white girl crowning the white homecoming queen. Beneath them, there are two long horizontal pictures. The first is of a line of couples and the photograph below it is of just young boys dressed for prom. On the right page there are two black and white photographs. The first is of a group of young girls dressed for prom and the second is of the Black homecoming queen and the white homecoming queen posing together. The yearbook spread features Montgomery County High School’s annual segregated homecoming festivities.
(Keyke Burns, age 17, 2008)
For homecoming you get a sheet, and you have to vote for one Black girl and one white girl from your grade. Everybody had to do that, one column for a white homecoming queen and another one for a Black homecoming queen. It always had to be Black and white. Mexicans were not included– the Hispanics were not even included! It was always segregated. Always.
Pix Photography Studio / Keyke Burns, age seven, studio portrait taken the day she presented the crown to the Black homecoming queen, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1997 / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a young girl in a bright turquoise dress. Her dress is floor length with large puffed sleeves and she has shoulder-length curly hair. She stands in photography studio space in front of a white column and a large plant.
(Keyke Burns, age 17, 2008)
I thought I was so pretty in my dress. I was in first grade. My job was to hand the crown to the [Black] homecoming queen. My friend Crystal, she had the same job, but hers was the give the crown to the white homecoming queen. They even make little kids be segregated, and they’re teaching kids at such a young age: You be a color instead of a person. Be a color, act your color, know your place. That’s sad. And I didn’t realize it at all.
Pix Photography Studio / Homecoming court with elementary school crown bearers selected by race, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2005
An image in the glass vitrine of the homecoming courts from the Black homecoming and the White homecoming. The couples are lined up together with the young men standing behind the young women. A young, Black boy and girl stand in front of the teenagers on the left and a young white boy and girl stand on the right.
Dana Shapiro / “Separate but Equal?” Spin magazine, May 2003 / Featuring photographs by Gillian Laub
A magazine lies open in the glass vitrine to a single photo that spans both pages. The photograph shows twelve young girls from both the Black and the white homecoming. They are all standing close to one another and hold matching bouquets of pink flowers. In the center of the group are the Black and white homecoming queens with the other young girls from their courts posing on either side of them in a line.
Gillian Laub’s photograph of Montgomery County High School’s 2002 segregated homecoming court– one of her earliest images of Mount Vernon– was published for the first time in a photography spread, “Separate but Equal?,” in Spin magazine in May, 2003.
The photographs were published in the early years of a decade defined by the rapid surge of internet use and rise of social media that enabled politically charged stories to course through American civic conversation with greater alacrity and effect. Although Laub and Spin’s editors had anticipated that the story would have a national impact, Spin was a niche publication with a relatively small, young readership, and it would be another seven years before the town integrated its proms.
Alejandro outside the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image in the glass vitrine of a young, Mexican boy looking down at his flip phone. He wears a white suit with a pink vest and tie and has short, dark hair. He stands outside next to a light gold car.
Mexican American and African American students at the Black prom, Vidalia, Georgia, 2009
An image in the glass vitrine of six teenaged boys. On the far left of the image, a Black boy stands wearing all black clothing with a red tie. He has a buzzed haircut and looks off to the left of the photo. Next to him is a Mexican boy with short hair wearing a black shirt and slacks and a pink vest and tie. He looks down towards the ground. On this left, is another Mexican boy with short hair wearing all white. He stands partially concealed behind a red balloon. Next to him, a Black boy stands with buzzed hair who is mostly concealed by a Mexican boy in a black shirt and slacks with a silver vest and tie. On the far right of the photo is another Black boy in all black with buzzed hair and a light red tie. The four teenagers on the right of the photograph are all looking directly at the camera.
Farming opportunities in Montgomery and Toombs counties– especially in Vidalia, where the eponymous onions are cultivated– have attracted a significant Mexican population in recent years. Mexican and Mexican American students, not easily categorized by skin color in the country’s tradition of segregated proms, were considered “white” and were allowed to attend the white and Black proms. Because Mexican families in the county struggle with their precarious immigration status, many were uncomfortable participating in and being interviewed for this project.
Khiry Right, and African American student and Montgomery County’s 2009 prom king, provides a classmate’s perspective on his Mexican American friends’ experiences in Montgomery County.
(Khiry Right, age 18, 2009)
When we had the homecoming ballot with the Black and white columns to vote for the queens, the white kids didn’t want to add a Mexican column. I am not surprised they didn’t want to be interviewed. A lot of their parents came here to work in the Vidalia onion farms and aren’t legal, so they could get their families into trouble for talking.
“A Night in Hollywood,” Montgomery County High School, May 2, 2009 / Black prom program and memory book
A small black book in the glass vitrine with silver cursive text on the cover that reads “A Night In Hollywood, Montgomery County High, May 2, 2009.” Above the text is a small graphic of a silver film reel. A long sparkling silver tassel protrudes from the left corner of the book.
Starting in 1972, when Montgomery County High School graduated its first integrated senior class, one white prom and one Black prom were held each year. Many of the county’s white residents referred to this practice as a cherished “tradition.” Tickets were sold in advance to control admission to the proms: everyone, regardless of race, was welcome to purchase tickets to the Black prom, yet African American students and interracial couples were prohibited from purchasing tickets to the white prom.
Montgomery County High School graduating class, Mount Vernon, Georgia 2009
An image in the glass vitrine of the fifty-six students in the 2009 graduating class. They all sit on a gym bleacher and look to the left of the photo. The girls’ caps and gowns are white, while the boys’ are bright blue. The students are not separated by race, but all sit together.
Fifty-four students composed Montgomery County High School’s 2009 graduating class, including thirty-three white students, twenty Black students, and three Mexican students (two seniors did not graduate that year).
Most of the students in this small class had been in school together since kindergarten. The lives of the Black and white students, and the lives of their families, were intertwined going back many generations. And yet, just two weeks before graduation, this close-knit class celebrated prom separately.
Sara Corbett / “A Prom Divided,” New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2009 / Featuring photographs by Gillian Laub
A magazine lies open in the glass vitrine with two photos showing on the pages. On the right left is a small photo taken of eight students from the white prom. Beginning on the left page and filling most of the right page is a much larger picture of fourteen students from the Black prom lined up on a small bridge.
Laub’s photographs of Montgomery County’s segregated proms were published in the New York Times Magazine in May 2009, accompanied by an online multimedia component. Laub’s photo essay became one of the most emailed stories that month, going viral and galvanizing expressions of outrage across the nation. Her images brought national attention– and widespread condemnation– to the town and its practice of segregation for the first time.
In the six years that had elapsed– from 2003, when the Spin article on the segregated homecomings was published, to 2009, when the Times Magazine piece came out– news outlets had moved their content online, and Internet use had gained wildly in popularity. As content transferred to the web, wider audiences gained access to politically charged stories that spoke to vulnerable communities who had previously been underrepresented by legacy media outlets.
The superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, who had previously resisted all integration efforts, held a town meeting to address the outrage that was being directed towards the community. Laub’s photographs had forced the town’s hand, and the white residents were shamed into changing the policy. It was decided that Montgomery County would hold its first integrated prom the following year. The decision to integrate was met with cautious optimism by the county’s African American students. Many of the white parents, incensed by the eradication of a cherished tradition, blamed Laub– an outsider from New York City– for exposing what was happening in their town. The following year she was prevented from entering or photographing the even that she had, effectively, integrated, despite the permission she had been granted by a town vote earlier that week. Police escorted her off of the premises.
Just a Black Boy
The fourth section of the exhibition is in the back of the second room in the space and consists of a white text didactic that is on a black wall and a small theater space that features a short 3 minute video. The video is of Norman Neesmith’s 911 call on the night he murdered Justin Patterson.
(Qu’an, age 17, 2012)
I still can’t believe Justin’s gone. A few days before he was killed he was over and left a pair of his boots at my house. They’re hanging over my bed now with a sign that says “RIP.” If I was him, I would’ve run, too. We were raised that we are guilty until proven innocent, and when you see a white man or cop with a gun, you run.
On January 28, 2011, Justin Patterson and his younger brother, Sha’von, were invited to the house of Danielle Neesmith, a girl Justin had previously dated. Later that evening, Danielle’s father, Norman Neesmith, was sleeping in his bed when he heard a noise, grabbed his gun– which he kept by his nightstand– and went into his daughter’s room. He saw the Patterson brothers, pointed his gun at them, and ordered them to go to the living room and sit down on the couch. Holding them at gunpoint, Neesmith said, “I could kill you and nobody would know.” The brothers made the joint, if silent, decision to run for the front door.
What happened next would seal the fates of everyone involved. At exactly 3:54 A.M. on the morning of January 29, Norman Neesmith called 911 and explained.
(End of didactic text)
Southern Rites The Film
The fifth section of the exhibition is in the final room of the space and consists of a text didactic, one image, and a larger screening room that featured the HBO film, Southern Rites.
This image is a yearbook portrait of Justin Patterson, a young, Black teenager who is wearing sneakers, baggy jeans and an orange polo shirt. He is sitting on the ground with his right arm resting on his right leg that is propped up. He is in front of a gray, marble portrait backdrop.
Below is text from the didactic outside of the film screening room:
Southern Rites follows a group of American high school students as they transition from adolescence to adulthood while grappling with the legacy of segregation and fighting for equality in Montgomery County, Georgia. Photographer and filmmaker Gillian Laub documents this coming of age by chronicling the segregated proms and homecoming rituals of a small Southern town, and a racially charged murder that devastates the community.
Laub’s work over the last two decades as an internationally celebrated photographer is fluent in the power of images, but she knew when she encountered this story she needed more than a camera. Distrubed by the entrenched racism she witnessed, Laub recognized that a larger story needed to be told. The resulting documentary explores the upheaval and repercussions when a white town resident is charged with the murder of Justin Patterson, a young, unarmed Black man. At first, the murder seems to confirm every assumption about the legacy of inequality and prejudice that the community is struggling to shakes, but the truth is more nuanced than a quick headline can telegraph.
“Although I have always believed in the power of still images, for the first time in my professional life I began to feel frustrated and limited by the medium. Images, alone, couldn’t convey the full nuance of this complex and troubling story,” Laub recalled. “It was essential that everyone on all sides of the story had the opportunity to share their truth.”
In Southern Rites, the photographer-turned-filmmaker chronicles a town that is held hostage by a dark past, manifesting racial tensions that scare American history. Patterson’s murder trial divides locals along well-worn lines, and the ensuin plea bargain and sentencing uncovers complex truths about racial injsutice in America.
“I am hoping the film can start conversations that are really hard to have,” said Laub of Southern Rites, “but are necessary in order for us to move forward.”
(End of didactic text)
The Death of Justin Patterson
The sixth section of the exhibition consists of a text didactic, four photographs, and a glass vitrine with facsimile objects in the last room of the exhibition. On the opposite wall there are sixteen numbered photographs placed in an irregular pattern.
In 2011, Justin Patterson, the first love and former prom date of Keyke Burns (one o fGillian Laub’s most frequent subjects), was shot and killed by Norman Neesmith, a sixty-two-year-old white man. While the integration of Montgomery County’s proms had started to heal the scars of a community that bore the heavy costs and legacy of institutional racism and segregation, the murder of Justin Patterson and the ensuing trial rocked the town to its core.
Norman Neesmith was indicted for felony murder, malice murder, voluntary mansluaghter, two counts of kidnapping, and two counts of aggravated assault. He faced life, plus sixty years, in prison. The day of the trial the district attorney offered Neesmith a plea bargain– without the victim’s family’s consent, which is not required in the state of Georgia– as the Patterson family waited in the courtroom for the trial to begin. Neesmith agreed to plead guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of reckless conduct. The district attorney recommended a sentence of one year in a probation detention center. Two months later, the judge accepted the plea.
Norman Neesmith served 365 days in Bleckley Probation Detention Center before returning to his home in Montgomery County. If he had been found guilty of even one count of aggravated assault, he would have served up to twenty years. “The district attorney said we had enough evidence to put him away for life,” Justin Patterson’s mother, Dedee, said, “but that man is still walking free. I know, for sure, if this were an older Black man who shot a white kid, he’d never see the light of day.”
(End of didactic text)
Sha’von, Justin and Santa, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2012
An image of a young Black man holding a photograph. The man is only visible from waist up and wears a white sleeveless shirt. He has tattoos on his arms and facial hair. The picture he holds shows two young boys sitting on a white Santa’s lap. Both young boys are Black, have short dark hair, and are smiling.
(Sha’von, Justin Patterson’s brother, age 18, 2011)
My brother Justin was my best friend. He was my role model. I looked up to him. It’s hard for me to talk about that night. My brother was talking to this girl, Danielle, on Facebook that he knew. She and her friend invited us over to her house. She told us to park across the street at the onion field so her daddy [Norman Neesmith] wouldn’t hear the car. We were just hanging out. Norman woke up, and the next thing I know he pulled my brother and me out of the room with a gun pointing at us. He told us to sit on the couch and asked our names. I looked at my brother. We were both scared and thought we had no choice but to run. Norman came chasing after us with the gun. I was trying to unlock the door and my brother tried to push him down so we could get away. When I finally got the door open, I heard two shots, and Justin screamed that he’d been shot. We both ran as fast as we could. Norman kept firing behind us. We didn’t get far before Justin collapsed in the field, and he told me he didn’t think he’d make it.
Meiah, Justin Patterson’s daughter, Glenwood, Georgia, 2012
An image of a Black child wearing a white shirt with an image of Justin Patterson with text that reads, “In memory of Justin Patterson. January 23, 1989 to January 29, 2011.” Her hair is in three pigtails and she has a sad expression on her face. She stands in a field.
(Dedee, Justin Patterson’s mother, 2011)
Meiah keeps asking where her daddy is. One day I will tell her what happened, hopefully where there is justice. How can I tell her it’s okay for someone to shoot another person, and they walk free?
It’s been five years since Justin was murdered and unfortunately the killing of unarmed Black boys seems to keep happening more and more. At least it seems like the media is finally giving it attention. Or it could be that people are being caught by smartphones so that’s why it’s getting the coverage.
Norman and Danielle, Lyons, Georgia, 2014
An image of a white older adult man and a medium-dark skinned young adult woman sitting on a floral couch. The man is bald and wears a red shirt and blue jeans. The woman wears a black long-sleeved shirt and grey pants and has shoulder-length brown hair. She sits with her head on the man’s shoulder and holds his hands. There is a wooden wall behind them and a small photograph and dish on a table to the left of the couch.
Norman Neesmith and his wife, who died from breast cancer in 2000, adopted Danielle, his niece’s daughter, the year she was born and raised her as their own child. Danielle’s mother, a young woman who struggled with addiction and mental health issues, was unprepared to care for a baby and unable to cope with the social stigma attached to having a biracial child.
(Norman Neesmith, the day after his release from Bleckley Probation Detention Center, May 21, 2013)
I worked hard my whole life and then I have to go to jail for a year because these boys were in my house late at night. They should have been sleeping in their own beds. Not coming over to mess around with my daughter and her friend in the middle of the night. It’s about respect. No respect. The whole society is getting worse. It ain’t gonna get better.
Norman at his sentencing, Toombs County Courthouse, Lyons, Georgia, April 26, 2012
An image of a white man half-visible through a door frame, lying face down on a bed. The man wears a red shirt and black shorts. Around the doorframe, there are four pictures hanging on the wood paneled wall to the left side of the photograph and one on the right. Beneath the four pictures is a cabinet with a variety of items on it. Through the doorway, a bedroom is partially visible. It has patterned wallpaper, a curtained window, a bed, and a dresser.
(Norman Neesmith, addressing Justin Patterson’s family at his sentencing, April 26, 2012)
I am sorry this happened to y’all. A big part of me died that day too… I mean, a part of me died that day too. People don’t understand that, but it did. It changed my life forever. It’s changed my family’s life forever.
Dedee and Justin Patterson, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1990 / Family snapshot / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a Black young adult woman holding a Black toddler. The woman has her dark hair in a tight bun and wears a patterned white shirt and large gold earrings. She smiles at the child who has a large grin while looking at the camera. The child wears a white shirt with blue shorts and has short dark hair. They are inside a house and there is a small mirror on the white walls behind them.
Julius, Dedee, Sha’von, and Justin Patterson at Justin’s preschool graduation, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1994 / Family snapshot / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a Black adult man and woman, a Black young child, and a Black toddler standing outside. The man has buzzed hair and is wearing a black suit. He is holding the toddler who has short hair and wears a black vest and pants with a light yellow shirt. Next to him, the woman has short dark hair and wears a patterned black and white dress with a black vest. In front of her is a young boy in a light yellow cap and gown. He looks at a diploma in his hands. There are other Black women and children in the background wearing bright colors.
Pix Photography Studio / Justin Patterson, age nine, youth league basketball portrait, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 1998 / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a Black child posing on one knee with a basketball. He is wearing a teal shirt with his team name “Timber Wolves” on it, dark blue shorts, and white tennis shoes. He has buzzed hair and a smile on his face as he looks at the camera.
(Dedee Patterson, Justin Patterson’s mother, 2011)
It’s really hard for me to talk about Justin and look at old photos of him without crying. He was my first. When my boys were getting dressed up and having their photos taken for prom, I never imagined I’d be talking about my son being murdered the next year. That man, Norman, knew those boys were no threat to him; the girl told her dad she invited them over. Justin was only about 130 pounds. Norman is probably 300 pounds, and he was the one with the gun. I still can’t understand why he shot at my boys four times. Of course they made a run for their lives. At about 3:30 A.M. I got a call from Sha’von that Justin had been shot. I woke up to a nightmare.
Pix Photography Studio / Justin Patterson, age seventeen, junior year varsity basketball portrait, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2006 / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a Black teenager sitting in a white background, posing with a basketball. He has buzzed hair and wears a loose light yellow shirt with white stripes, loose blue jean shorts, black shoes, and a beaded necklace.
(Dedee Patterson, 2011)
I ran into Norman at the grocery store. I just stared at him and cried. All I wanted to ask him is, “Why did he have to kill my son?” I’ll never get him back, and his brother lost his best friend. It was a senseless death. I know, for sure, if this were an older Black man who shot a white kid, he’d never see the light of day,
Pix Photography Studio / Keyke Burns and Justin Patterson, studio portrait taken the day they attended their homecoming, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2005 / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a young, Black girl and young boy posing in front of a grey studio backdrop. The girl has her dark hair in an updo and wears a long, sparkling light purple dress with a matching shawl and silver jewelry. She smiles at the camera while holding a bouquet of leaves and a red flower tied with a red bow. Next to her, a young boy with buzzed hair is wearing a black suit with an untucked white shirt. He smiles at the camera with his right arm around the girl.
Pix Photography Studio / Keyke Burns and Justin Patterson, studio portrait taken the day they attended the Black prom, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2007 / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a young, Black girl and boy posing in front of a studio backdrop. The girl has her dark curly hair half pulled back and wears a long, orange dress with a matching corsage, silver jewelry and silver heels. Next to her is a young boy with buzzed hair wearing a white suit with an orange vest and tie. The girl smiles brightly at the camera and the boy has a serious look on his face. The background contains four fake white columns draped in a variety of reflective and sparkling decorations.
Keyke Burns was a junior at Montgomery County High School when she attended the senior prom with her boyfriend, Justin Patterson, who graduated that year. Four years later, Patterson was fatally shot by Norman Neesmith, a sixty-two-year-old white man.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Sha’von Patterson and Keyke Burns.
(Sha’von Patterson, Justin Patterson’s brother, age 18, 2011)
Four years ago he was at his prom with Keyke, and now he’s just another Black boy that was killed.
(Keyke Burns, age 20, 2011)
My first love was Justin Patterson. He was my first real boyfriend. Before we dated I heard he liked me because his momma and my momma were real close. He gave me a little bracelet on Valentine’s Day with hearts on it. For the first year we were going together we did not speak at all. We would be on the phone for hours just breathing and barely talking. We would fall asleep like that. So it took a whole year before we did anything– kissed, hugged, said “I love you,” anything. He was so shy, and so was I.
Additional Label Text:
On January 28, 2011, Keyke Burns’ mother, Jennifer, woke her daughter up to tell her that Justin Patterson had been shot. Keyke asked if he was okay. “No,” Jennifer replied, “he died around three o’clock this morning.” “I was in shock,” Keyke recalled. “I couldn’t get up. I stayed in bed all day and just cried.”
Memorial fan used by Justin Patterson’s family and supporters in Toombs County Courthouse, Lyons, Georgia, 2012
A small handheld fan in the glass vitrine made from a rectangular photograph and a wooden paint mixing stick. The photograph shows a Black teenage boy with buzzed hair wearing an orange and white striped shirt.The words “In memory of Justin Patterson, January 23, 1989 to January 29, 2011” are printed on top of the image.
On February 8, 2012, the Patterson family and their supporters gathered at the Toombs County Courthouse to attend Norman Neesmith’s trial for the murder of Justin Patterson. The jury selection was already underway when an announcement was made in the courtroom that a plea bargain had been struck between Neesmith and the district attorney, to the Patterson family’s horror and dismay. There would be no trial. The Patterson family was shocked; they had believed that the trial would begin that day.
Neesmith walked out of the courtroom as a free man after shooting an unarmed Black youth who had been invited into his home by his daughter.
Two months later, on April 26, 2012, Neesmith’s sentencing took place. The judge had the power to reject the district attorney’s plea agreement with Neesmith, but Neesmith’s plea was upheld. He was sentenced to one year in a minimum-security probation detention center. He served precisely 365 days.
Jay’s tattoo of Justin, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2012
An image in the glass vitrine of a Black man’s forearm with a tattoo of a man’s face with text surrounding it. Above the face, there is text that is bordered by the shape of a scroll and reads “R.I.P. Patt.” Below the face, text reads “Justin Patterson January 23, 1989 to January 29, 2011. There is additional text below this that reads “Nuv me? Goodies M.O.B.”
(Jay Sneed, age 22, 2011)
Patt [Justin Patterson’s nickname] was like a brother to me. We were inseparable since kindergarten and played basketball together every year since third grade. The day after he died I got this tattoo. It says, “R.I.P. Patt.” I just visited his grave and sang a rhyme I wrote for him. I can’t get his face or voice out of my mind. I spent seven hours with him at the funeral home. I just couldn’t leave him.
Norman and Danielle Neesmith, the day of her beauty pageant, family snapshot, Lyons, Georgia, 1998 / Family snapshot / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a white older man and a medium-dark skinned young girl. The man has greying brown hair and glasses and wears a plaid shirt and white pants. His right arm is around the girl who is wearing a large, fluffy white gown with many ruffles and a matching head piece. She wears her curly dark hair up and closes her eyes.
Norman and Danielle Neesmith at their home, Lyons, Georgia, 2005 / Family snapshot / Facsimile, laserjet print
An image in the glass vitrine of a white older man and a medium-dark skinned young girl. The man has balding grey hair and wears dark swim shorts and no shoes. He has a cigarette in his right hand and his left hand is on the shoulder of the young girl. The girl has her dark hair around her shoulders and wears a green, blue and white swimsuit. She holds a small, white dog up to her face and has a white towel wrapped around her. The two stand outside next to a pool in a fenced area. There is a building behind the pool on the right side of the image and a white truck parked in a field behind the fence on the left side.
Label Quotes: This label features quotes from two Montgomery County residents, Norman Neesmith and Danielle Neesmith.
(Norman Neesmith, 2013)
I raised Danielle like she was my own baby. I loved this little girl like I was her birth daddy. My niece left her on my doorstep in a torn-up dirty diaper. She was scared to raise a mixed kid; it is hard, but Danielle was this innocent little child, and I couldn’t leave her be. It wasn’t her fault. I lost a lot of family because of this. They told me I couldn’t raise a Black kid. I taught her to keep her head up, though. Kids are gonna be cruel. No matter what she’s done, I still love her. If she caused all of this, I still love her.
(Danielle Neesmith, age 21, 2013)
Norman raised me since I was two months old. He’s the only daddy I’ve ever known. I know he looks scary, but he’s a big ol’ teddy bear. Daddy’s family really didn’t want to have anything to do with him because I am biracial. He still kept me anyways and raised me. It takes a lot for a man to do that. For anyone to think he killed Justin because he was Black is just stupid. I blame myself for what happened that night. I met Justin in Atlanta two years ago. We lost touch and then, one day, Bam!, a Facebook request came up: Justin Burr Patterson. I was like, Yes! We started communicating and everything was going good, and then I invited him over one night. My friend Brittany was over. He brought his brother, Sha’von. When Daddy woke up and found us, he was mad. He took the boys in the living room, and I just hid in my room– I was too scared. The next thing I know I see the boys running past my room, and I hear gunshots.
I still have nightmares every night. The night Justin died he gave me a necklace that I wore every day for a year. Now I sleep with it next to my bed. It’s the only piece of him that I have left.
Norman in his backyard, eighteen months after his release from a minimum-security probation detention center, Lyons, Georgia, 2014
An image in the glass vitrine of a white older adult man leaning on a metal chain linked fence and standing in the grass. The right side of the photograph shows a portion of an outdoor pool and the back of a small house. The man has a bald head and is wearing a red shirt, grey shorts, and a silver watch on his left wrist. He has a sad and serious look on his face.
1. Jesus died for you, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
An image of a long white sign with the words “Jesus Died For You” in bold, red letters. Another smaller sign stands above it saying “Now entering Hitchcockville, population 10, Monroe Kirkley, Mayor”. Both signs stand in front of a dirt path surrounded by grass.
2. Love is pain, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2012
A close-up image of a medium-light skinned person’s arm and waist. There is a large tattoo on their arm that features a thorny red rose with the words “Love is pain” in black ink above it. The person’s waist fills the right side of the image. They wear a light blue shirt, jeans, a black belt, and a chain that falls into their jeans pocket.
3. Onion harvesting, Vidalia, Georgia, 2010
An image of a medium-dark skinned person in a field bending over a brown bucket of onions. They are seen from the back wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt, jeans, a blue baseball hat, and a confederate flag scarf around their neck and head. They hold two onions in their hands.
4. Your sin will find you, Lyons, Georgia, 2010
An image of a small white sign on a pole in a sidewalk with the words “…and be sure your sins will find you out, Numbers 32:23” in bold black letters. To the left of the sign is a road with cars stopped at a traffic light. In the distance on the right, there is an empty gas station and a Subway.
5. God loves you so much, Vidalia, Georgia, 2014
An image of a large white sign with the words “God loves you so much, onion burgers etc, eleven to two” in large black letters. The sign is on the grass next to a road.
6. Sunday church, McRae, Georgia, 2014
An image of two Black older women sitting next to one another on a red cushioned pew in a church. The woman on the left wears a light blue dress with a matching blazer jacket and hat; her straight dark hair falls to her shoulders and she wears glasses and short beige heels. On the right, a woman wears a light pink dress with a matching jacket over a white blouse.She wears an off-white hat over her shoulder-length dark hair and white shoes and glasses. On the right side of the church pew, there is a pile of bags and books and on the left there is a tambourine. Beneath the women’s feet on the red carpeted floor is a walking cane.
(Adeline (left), 2016)
We’ve been coming to this church every Sunday since we were children. Life is a lot better than in our cotton-picking days. We knew our place and stayed in it. Our lives depended on that. Each generation it gets better. But when my cousin Bettu’s grandson, Justin Patterson, was killed and the man got off, that was like the old days.
7. Cemetery, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
An image of an old Georgia state flag strung halfway up a pole in a cemetery. Half of the state flag includes the confederate flag which is partially torn off. The flag flies over a small cemetery in a field in front of a farm building. There are bright flowers at many of the graves and a small confederate flag stuck in the ground.
8. Southern dreamer, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
A close up image of a light-skinned person’s collarbone that has a tattoo of the text “Southern Dreamer” in an elaborate, curly font.
9. Key to heaven, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
An image of a large sign with the church name “First Baptist Church, Mount Vernon” and service information and the words “The key to heaven was hung on a nail” in black letters. The image appears to have been taken at night and the rest of the picture is dark.
10. Donna, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
A close up image of a young Black woman. She has dark, shoulder length hair and a serious expression on her face. She wears large silver hoop earrings, a silver nose piercing and a silver chain necklace.
(Donna, age 19, 2010)
I really want to make a difference in this world. Now I get very emotional when I come back home, and every time I get close, on Route 280, I have anxiety and get the chills. Living in Atlanta and going to Clark [Atlanta University] has opened my eyes up to a lot. I feel kind of empowered, even though sometimes I feel guilty that I have this opportunity my family never had to go to college. My dream is that one day I’ll be able to take care of them. Because we talked to you and shared our story… you put the mirror up, and it cracked.
11. Route 280, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2013
An image of a small, partially destroyed old house in a flooded grassy field behind a bare tree. There is a white trailer parked near the trees that stand behind the house. There appears to be a farm to the left of the image next to another bare tree.
12. God is alive, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2010
An image of a large, handmade sign that says “God is alive” in uneven red letters on white boards. The sign stands in a field of dead grass and is partially concealed by bushes.
13. Jesus loves you, Lyons, Georgia, 2010
An image of a large sign that appears to have said “Jesus loves you” but several letters have fallen off. The words are underneath a large arrow pointing to the right side of the image and the entire sign is next to a road just before a traffic light.
14. Public shaming, Vidalia, Georgia, 2013
An image of two Black adult men holding signs on a sidewalk next to a road. The man on the left is only visible up to his shoulders and wears a brown shirt and long shorts with brown shoes. His sign says “I was found guilty of disorderly conduct in Vidalia, Georgia.” The man on the right has dark hair and a concerned look on his face. He is sitting and has his hands clasped in front of his mouth. He wears a white shirt and brown pants and his sign says “I was found guilty of DUI in Vidalia, Georgia.”
Lourinza (left), May 2013
I was urinating outside of a nightclub and I got caught. At my court date I had a choice: I could either walk with this sign up or go to jail. It’s humiliating, but better than being behind bars. We have to walk up and down the street for eight hours every day this week. People drive by, people we know. I think my store manager just drove by, but I didn’t look up.
15. Don’t let Satan trick you, Lyons, Georgia, 2013
An image taken from a distance of a large sign with the name of the church “Faith Baptist Church,” service information and the words “Don’t let Satan trick you into hell” in black letters. The image appears to have been taken at night and the rest of the picture is dark.
16. Cotton fields, Mount Vernon, Georgia, 2014
An image of a blooming white and gold cotton field taken at a low angle so that the plants fill almost all of the frame. The picture has a hazy appearance because of the bright sun.
Southern Rites: A History of Montgomery and Toombs Counties
The last section of the exhibition consists of a large didactic wall. The didactic consists of an image of a cottonfield that covers an entire wall and text that overlays that image. The text is divided into two sections, the history of Montgomery and Toombs County and an epilogue.
Montgomery County and neighboring Toombs County were settled in the late eighteenth century by veterans of the American Revolution. The counties’ main exports were cotton, livestock, and timber. After railroad networks were established in the nineteenth century, the population substantially increased. During the Civil War, African American represented one-third of the population in Montgomery and Toombs counties, and all or nearly all of them were slaves.
During Reconstruction, the invention of synthetic fertilizers improved the counties’ barren soil, and tobacco and Vidalia onions became the most important exports. As farming opportunities increased, the number of white and African American residents increased steadily: the population doubled between 1870 and 1900, yet the end of slavery had ushered in an era of segregation.
From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Georgia had the largest population of African Americans in the United States. Jim Crow laws, legislated by white, Southern Democratic “Redeemer” governments, enforced racial segregation and separate facilities for Blacks and whites in Georgia and throughout the American South. One such Georgia law read:
All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license.
And the state’s recreation laws included the following warning:
It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall by unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the whites race.
Those who defied the segregation laws often suffered severe and violent consequences.
During the Second World War, the US Army Air Forces established a base in Toombs County, bringing more prosperity to the community, and by 1950 the combined population of Montgomery and Toombs counties rose to seventeen thousand.
The fight for equal rights for African Americans– and, specifically, the right to vote– framed many of the struggles in 1950s and 1960s Montgomery and Toombs counties,
The facilities for African Americans, including schools, were almost always inferior to the facilities for the white population. The landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) made it illegal for schools to refuse to admit a student because of his or her race but did not federally mandate the integration of schools. Southern states exploited a convoluted system of loopholes to avoid integrating their schools while ostensibly complying with the decision. Most counties in Georgia, including Toombs and Montgomery, employed a scheme in which citizens were “free to choose” which school to attend. At the same time, city planners used districting to legally segregate communities. Many districts closed their schools entirely rather than comply with the Supreme Court decision.
In the late 1960s the Georgia legislature had started to address the loopholes used to circumvent Brown by issuing individual rulings by county. These decisions stated that the schools must adhere to specific integration plans or risk losing funding. Under this explicit threat, Montgomery and Toombs county high schools finally integrated in 1971.
The establishment of the Montgomery County division of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had a significant impact on the community. The NAACP initially focused its efforts on voter registration, leading to a dramatic increase in African American voters that angered many local residents, including members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). In 1949, Isaiah Nixon was lynched in Montgomery County by the KKK for exercising his right to vote; his family fled to Florida. A few years later, Robert Mallard was lynched in Toombs County by the KKK; his wife fled to Savannah. Vocal NAACP members received death threats and suffered attacks and beatings. Many moved to Atlanta, where the NAACP was more robust and better able to provide protection from threats of racially motivated violence. The African American population of Montgomery and Toombs counties declined, as many residents left for nearby cities where NAACP chapters were more organized and public officials were more open to African American participation in civic life.
Today African Americans represent slightly less than one third of the population in Montgomery and Toombs counties. Montgomery County’s proms did not integrate until 2010, yet the town was by no means unique in maintaining the entrenched and pernicious traditions of Jim Crow. It was only in the first decade of this century– in which Americans elected their first Africn American president– that numerous rural communities throughout Georgia and other Southern states finally integrated their proms, homecomings, dances, and social events.
The practice of segregation often continues to be carried out informally, as a community norm not officially endorsed by the local school districts. In some districts, many of the white students have been removed from the public schools by their parents and are sent to exclusive, all-white private schools. At the same time, in economically disadvantaged and rural districts where parents who want to remove their white children from integrated schools have few or no alternatives, self segregation is widespread.
Discrimination in American schools is perpetuated in many forms. Unequal school discipline begins in the earliest years of the education system: even African American kindergarteners are expelled from preschool at wildly disproportionate rates, and often are forced to go to different school districts for incidents as minor as a temper tantrum in a classroom. In American high schools, predominantly African American districts are plagued by a lack of resources, a shortage of teachers, and limited access to honors and college preparatory classes, among other inequities. The disproportionate punishment and arrest of African Americans, particularly young men, and the looming threat of racially motivated violence carry the weight of centuries of discriminatory laws and customs.
As American political scientists Naomi Murakwa observed, “If the problem of the twenty-first century was, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous words, ‘the problem of the color line,’ then the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of color blindness, the refusal to acknowledge the causes and consequences of enduring racial stratification.” In contemplating profound moral questions through a specific narrative lens, Laub’s Southern Rites asks us to explore the complexity and pain of inequalities that are still with us today. A generation of African American young adults has come of age during Barack Obama’s historic presidency, yet the scars of slavery and the legacy of segregation and race-based violence continue to limit the opportunities and hopes of many African American youth in the American South and throughout this country.
On March 1, 2017, an African American student at Montgomery County High School, Jamaal Fields, noticed a noose hanging on an old soccer goalpost during his third period class. Fields snapped a picture of the hangman’s knot– the kind used for decades to lynch African Americans in the South– and posted it on social media, then promptly reported the incident to the school principal. The noose was quietly removed by the school officials without comment, and Fields was reprimanded for calling attention to the noose through his posts and punished with a suspension on the grounds of “misuse of technology.” Asked if he regretted posting the image, Fields responded, “If I didn’t post this photo on Facebook and just went to the principal’s office to report it, nobody would have ever known about it. They would have tried to cover it up and hide it. They asked why I tried to make the school look bad.” Fields’ mother, who graduated from Montgomery County High School two decades earlier, observed that things have gotten worse since she was a student, stating, “I feel like Black people will never be free. Never.”
In 2018, Stacey Abrams ran as the Democratic PArty nominee for governor of the State of Georgia, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated by a major party for the position. On the last day of her campaign, Abrams visited Montgomery and Toombs counties. Abrams narrowly lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp, who served as secretary of state and supervised Georgia’s voter rolls and tightened voting restrictions; he used his office to limit access to voting in order to benefit his own candidacy.
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed twenty-five year old African American man, was jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was pursued and fatally shot by three white town residents who were driving a pickup truck. Arbery’s murder, and the delayed investigation and arrest of his killers, contributed to national debates about racial injustive that were heightened by the release of a video of the shooting. Sparked by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Taryvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Georgie Gloyd and scores of Black and brown people who were the victims of racially motivated violence, many at the hands of the police, Black Lives Matter became one of the largest movements in U.S. History.
(End of didactic text and text accessible exhibition page.)