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An investigation of racially segregated proms led Gillian Laub to the story of a racially charged murder

Deep South

Photographer found a lot more than racism while working on segregated prom project

By Alice Robb on May 28, 2015

In 2009, photographer Gillian Laub shocked the American public with her photo essay documenting the racially segregated proms of Montgomery County High School in Mount Vernon, Georgia. Appearing in The New York Times magazine, her series caused such a stir that the sleepy southern community finally agreed to hold an integrated prom the following year.

Laub, who is from New York, first traveled to Mount Vernon in 2002 to photograph segregated proms and homecoming celebrations, following a tip from a 19-year-old student who wrote in to Spin, where Laub worked. She returned regularly to the town for the next seven years, yet when she went back in 2010 to film Montgomery County High’s first integrated prom, she found herself less than welcome.

“I was hoping to tell the story of a community finally coming together and convey the hope I found in the younger generation,” Laub told Women in the World in an email. Instead, a county sheriff snatched her camera away, and she was barred from the event. “Being attacked by the county sheriff really drove home the reality of the fear they described living with on a daily basis,” she said.

Even some of the young members of the community were furious about the negative spotlight Laub had brought to their town, and defended segregated proms on the basis of tradition. “This community is fine like it is,” one white student told her. “We want to live the way our grandparents lived and the way our great-grandparents lived.”

But Laub didn’t leave. “It was apparent they had something to hide,” she wrote. “The more I got bullied, the more I realized how important it was to keep on working.” Laub ended up landing on a disturbing–and not unrelated–story in a nearby town: the 2011 murder of Justin Patterson, an unarmed young black man, by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man. (Patterson was the prom date of one of Laub’s initial subjects.)

Patterson was hanging out with Neesmith’s daughter at Neesmith’s house late one night; when Neesmith woke up, he became enraged and attacked Patterson. “I hate to say it, but I shot him,” Neesmith says politely in a 911 call. “It was just a black boy.” The tape of that call, and interviews with Patterson and Neesmith’s family and friends, appear in Laub’s new documentary, Southern Rites, produced by John Legend and currently airing on HBO GO. Laub’s images of Mount Vernon are also on display at the Benrubi Gallery in New York until June 27, and have been collected in a new book, Southern Rites. Together with the film, these projects give us a window into how racist attitudes play out in various aspects of community life–from social segregation and a taboo on interracial dating to discrimination in the court. In the photo series excerpted below, Laub captured students dressed up for their separate proms and interracial couples who couldn’t go; in her more recent images, we finally see interracial couples dancing together.