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Prom in Flint is more than just a dance. It’s a celebration of triumph and survival—and this year was Northwestern High School’s grand finale.

STORY BY Jiquanda Johnson and Lindsay Smith

PORTRAITS BY ZACKARY CANEPARI

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANIEL ARNOLD

VIDEO BY JESSICA DIMMOCK AND ZACKARY CANEPARI

The morning announcement rings through the speakers: “Today is Friday, May 18—prom day in Wildcat Country.” For students at Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, the message signifies the start of a day they’d been working toward for years, and one that will never come again. The 2018 senior class would be last to attend a Northwestern High School prom.

After graduation, the school will close its doors due to declining enrollment, forcing current students to move to neighboring Southwestern High School. While the decision drew disappointment, it also inspired an extra level of commitment to Flint’s already-famous prom flair.

Gowns and suits were painstakingly planned, sometimes months in advance, to shine on the catwalk—a revered pre-prom tradition in Flint that brings the community into the streets for an annual neighborhood fashion show. “It’s magical. You have these people who you see all year and they’re dressed in casual clothing, and then they come to prom and they look like princesses or queens,” student Brandi Roper says. “It’s a transformation, and I just think that’s amazing.”

Top: Deborah Nelson Plunkett and Jakelveon Jackson
Southwestern students crash Northwestern’s prom.
Jakelveon Jackson
Deneisha Gray
Malachi Elridge and Chloressa Wren

I feel like outsiders literally just see the bad in Flint. That’s all they ever see, because that’s all that’s ever mentioned.

Cha’Leyah Fleming
The Faulkner twins, Dazyah and Dezyah
Dazyah Faulkner and Dezyah Faulkner

We earned this prom. We really did.

Brandon Brown
Chaelcie Mosley (left) stands with her son and a portrait of his father, killed in a drive-by shooting.

How do you know what my future is going to be? How can you predict it for me when I don’t even know what it’s going to be?

Aireona Nelson
Jessica Truly

In many ways, the event marks a moment more significant than the dance itself. It’s an affirmation that these students have made it through the many challenges they faced growing up in Flint. The city that thrived in decades past has struggled since the automotive industry’s decline. Poverty rates are high—nearly 58 percent of children were living below the poverty line in 2016. The FBI named it one of the most violent cities in the country in 2017. And the community continues to cope with its ongoing water crisis. In 2014, the state changed the city’s water source and nearly 100,000 residents were exposed to lead-tainted water.

Flint’s challenges have resulted in a drastic population decline. In 1975, 43,058 students were enrolled in its school system. That number fell to 4,833 by 2016 as thousands of families left the city. Enrollment continues to drop, and only 223 students graduated from Flint’s two high schools, Northwestern and Southwestern, in 2018. The city’s response: shutter one school and combine the students.

Prom is a time for students to set aside these difficulties and show off their best. Beyond honoring the glamor and glitz, it’s a chance for the community to celebrate its students—their individuality, strength, and potential. On prom day, the teenagers become the town’s stars.

“It’s our time to shine. People in Flint don’t get no time to shine,” student Levolia Thames Jr. says. “This is like our Hollywood, so this is everybody’s chance to bring it, and they’re gonna bring it.”

Donald Grant
Cha’Leyah Fleming and Jakelveon Jackson, Northwestern’s prom queen and king
A couple, surrounded by fellow students and a police officer, waits to board the bus to prom.
Brandi Roper
Jayda Batson and Levolia Thames Jr.

It’s our time to shine. People in Flint don’t get no time to shine, so this is everybody’s chance to bring it, and they’re gonna bring it.

Levolia Thames Jr.
Akiya Hitchye

Flint is more than just the murder rate or the water problem. Flint is a family … Flint is home. It’s not what everyone thinks it is … There are parts of Flint that are amazing. It’s the people that make Flint what it is.

LEEANN HARVEY

Jakelveon Jackson and Cha’Leyah Fleming

Growing up in Flint gives you a toughness you can’t just describe.

Cortez Jackson
Tenika Richards

It’s really important because we get to have our moments and share those with the people that we’ve lost, just remember them.

ANNA HALEY

Dressed to the nines in stilettos and suits, students at Flint’s Northwestern High School celebrate the end of the year at their school’s final prom.

Prom in Flint has always been an important rite of passage. Lorenzo Avery, who was a senior at Northwestern in 1975, says the event then was more of an intimate affair. “Your family came and that’s it,” he says, adding “it was like I was getting married.” Now, catwalks draw hundreds of spectators, all waiting to see what Flint’s youth will bring to the dance floors that year.

The closure hasn’t dampened students’ school pride. “It’s the best high school in Flint. We’re better than everybody. Green and Gold. Wildcats,” senior Brandon Brown says. He isn’t alone. When asked about their school, students say Northwestern is a family, that they take care of one another, and that the deep bonds they’ve forged will last a lifetime—and the school’s prom traditions will live on.

Students at Southwestern High School will continue the practice in Flint, and nearby communities, like those in Detroit, have started their own neighborhood runways. It’s no surprise the tradition has spread.

“Everybody wants to have a spotlight on them,” Thames Jr. says. “Everybody wants to be something.”