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Gillian Laub’s Southern Rites
Photography Gillian Laub

Documenting one American high school’s racial segregation

This photographer spent 12 years capturing the complex yet changing racial landscape through the microcosm of one community in Georgia

While you’d be naive for thinking that, even in the 21st century, racism doesn’t exist (because shamefully, it does) you might be forgiven for thinking racial segregation, particularly in America, was over. But you’d also be wrong. It exists in different ways, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it’s amongst the neighbourhoods, entertainment venues, and, sadly, in schools. Southern Rites is the culmination of a 12-year project that is also now a feature documentary film, an exhibition and, most recently, a book, detailing the complex and changing racial landscape through the microcosm of one community in Montgomery Country, Georgia.

Southern Rites filmmaker-photographer Gillian Laub explains the ‘tradition’ began in the 70s, when schools were first integrated, and had never been officially readdressed. “Many people seemed ok with the status quo and even proud of their tradition, but then when I dug deeper, it was apparent that the black students were deeply hurt and wanted a change, explains Laub. “Some were too frightened to speak out publicly. Most of the white students I talked to felt the same, but were scared to go against their parents' wishes. It became very clear to me that this tradition was kept in place because of the older generations.”

“It became very clear to me that this tradition was kept in place because of the older generations” – Gillian Laub

Prom season meant tensions were notched to high, as students attempted to integrate with one another at the dismay of the old generation. With Laub explaining that white students’ parents would threaten their children with punishment for attempting to challenge the segregation. “If your car is about to be taken away when you’re a teenager, that feels serious,” she says.

It wasn’t until the New York Times ran Laub’s documentation of Montgomery County in 2009, titled “A Prom Divided”, that the community’s people realised it was time for a change, but even Laub realised it would take time. “I spent a lot of time with the students, so it was amazing to see them grow up and develop. Montgomery County became my home away from home,” she says. “I saw many positive changes take place over the course of time, which was incredibly inspiring. At the same time there were incredibly frustrating moments when I realised just how difficult it is for people to change their ingrained and oftentimes subconscious prejudices and how toxic that can be.”

The following year, Montgomery Country was in the midst of change – the Prom was integrated and a historic campaign to elect the county’s first African American sheriff was underway – when a young man in the community was murdered. The shooting threw the town into tragedy.

Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old black man was killed by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man at Neesmith’s home. Although accounts vary as to what happened, Patterson was visiting Neesmith’s niece when Neesmith woke to find him in his house. The confrontation ended with Patterson dead in Neesmith’s front yard. Laub, in town to document the town’s first integrated Prom, was there to see the aftermath.

“The killing of Justin Patterson felt particularly devastating. Yet at the same time, it didn’t feel honest or responsible as an artist to not represent all sides of this story,” reveals Laub. “So as difficult as that was, the man who killed him became a big part of this project as well. We get to know him and his perspective, which turns out to be very complicated and nuanced.” Neesmith was charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct and was sentenced to a year in a special detention program for shooting an unarmed Patterson.

Feeling different, unwanted or unaccepted is a constant weight on any teenager's mind. And while high school isn’t about blending in, it’s certainly not about being divided – particularly by something like race. For a town like Montgomery County, it wasn’t the kids doing the bullying, instead it was the parents. Laub says, “When I attended the finally integrated Proms in 2011, it was a fun and typical high school dance, and almost felt anti-climactic in a sense because it was hard to imagine that this is what the parents were working so hard to keep from happening.”

Although initially worried that the press reaction would impact negatively upon Montgomery County, Laub says it hasn’t, and has instead aided the town’s progression. “It has been incredible to see people really come together. Although change happens slowly, it is happening and I always saw hope in the young generation,” she says. “They didn’t realise the power they had, and now they do. Many students texted me photos from this year’s Prom and homecoming.  The king and queen were mixed couples and they said, “WE DID IT!” I got the chills when I received those messages.”

Southern Rites – published by Damiani – is available now