09/22/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:04 EDT

Integrated-prom pioneer needs funds to visit Museum for Human Rights

Mareshia Rucker’s dream prom looked nothing like any official high school dance her southwest Georgia classmates had ever attended.

For one thing, students of all races were welcome.

Spurning the invitation-only “white proms” and so-called “black proms” that were the norm at Wilcox County High, Rucker and three friends (two white, one black) decided last year to give their graduating class their first desegregated year-end formal. 

Their plan, though not sanctioned by the school, drew thousands of dollars of donations, support from across the U.S. and global media coverage to her hometown of Rochelle, 250 kilometres south of Atlanta.

“Black people weren’t allowed to go to ‘white prom,’ so I don’t know what that prom was like,” she said. “But it dawned on us: At the end of the day, we graduate together. We called ours ‘Integrated Prom,’ and it was amazing.”

A year later, Rucker, now 19, has another wish: “To get ourselves to Canada next month,” she said. 

More specifically, the destination is Winnipeg, where the newly opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights has displayed Rucker’s red prom dress and shoes for an exhibit entitled Inspiring Change.

Seeking to raise $3,600

“I feel like it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. When we’re blessed enough to have an opportunity like this, you don’t want to take it for granted,” Rucker said. “Knowing that we have an exhibit there in the museum is so surreal. It’s a complete honour.”

The problem is money. Between her mother’s business closing down two years ago and having to pay tuition at Fort Valley State University, the mass-communications major is strapped.

The family is depending on other relatives to pay their bills in rural Georgia.

“Having a new college student and two others, one in high school and one in middle school, financially it’s been a major strain,” said Rucker’s mother, Toni.

So Rucker started a crowdfunding campaign to get to Canada. In the same spirit of giving that saw DJs and catering companies provide free services for her class’s first mixed-race prom, Rucker hopes donors will chip in toward the $3,600 needed so that she, her mother, her grandmother and two co-organizers of the prom can spend a few days in Winnipeg and view their prom display in person.

She has already assured her professors she would only miss a few lectures.​

Unexpected civil-rights symbols

“We have to pay for lodgings, but we also have to pay for passports,” said Rucker, who has never been outside the United States before.

“I don’t know why it didn’t hit me, but it was like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys, if we have to get out of the country, we need passports!’” she said.

Matthew McRae, the museum researcher-curator who first contacted Rucker last winter about donating her prom “artifacts” to the gallery, is eager to give the college student a tour.

“I’d love to have her come here. I know she’s been taught the value of hard work, but it’s a very expensive trip,” he said.

McRae, who made a personal donation to Rucker’s GoFundMe campaign, also went down to Georgia last December to meet with the teen and her friends to record an oral history project.

He said the museum chose Rucker’s dress and her friend’s tuxedo to include in the Inspiring Change exhibit because the prom artifacts were fresh and unexpected civil-rights symbols.

Change 'can look like a prom dress'

The dress and tuxedo will be placed behind glass among displays about the recent Egyptian uprising, the African AIDS crisis and the South African anti-apartheid movement.

“We wanted to show that people are making changes in their own lives to uphold their rights, or enable others to uphold their rights, and we wanted it to be as relevant as possible,” McRae explained.

“The question we were looking to address is, ‘What does change look like for human rights?’ Well, it can look like a prom dress,” he said.

Reciting one of their first Facebook interactions from last year, he said, “I believe Mareshia’s words were, ‘Being in a museum is a freaking honour.’”

Although high school is behind her, Rucker was happy to hear that Wilcox High School decided to host an official integrated prom this past May. In a reminder that true change can’t be forced, however, she also learned that a rival prom was organized only for white students.

To Rucker, having her work validated at a national museum in Canada shows that “when you stand up for what you know is right, then life brings things around to you that you would have never expected,” she said. 

“It’s something simple as saying, ‘I know that this is wrong, so therefore I’m going to have an integrated prom,’” she added. 

“Something that simple could have an impact on the entire world, and that’s just beautiful.”