Segregated proms seem like an anachronism. Relegated to black-and-white movies. Soda fountains. Sadly, that is not the case as Gillian Laub discovered for herself.
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, a photography series, 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.
Mount Vernon, Georgia
In 2002, Gillian 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.
Gillian 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.
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 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. In the months leading up to the election, Kemp purged 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 injustice that were heightened by the release of a video of the shooting.