50 Years Late, a Prom Comes to Birmingham

Civil rights marches kept the Class of '63 from holding its ball then, but now it plans to party.

(The Root) — Earnestine Thomas didn’t attend her senior prom before graduating in 1963 from Birmingham, Ala.’s A.H. Parker High School — there wasn’t one.

She had planned on attending with friends and wearing a fancy, neon-hued dress that glittered in the lights. Senior proms and other end-of-school-year activities in Birmingham’s “colored” schools were canceled in 1963 after thousands of children, many of them of high school age, took to the streets to protest segregation at the height of the so-called Children’s March (also known as the Children’s Crusade) in early May. 

Although their marching helped change a segregated South, the black youths’ activism brought consequences: rides in a police wagon, lockups in a Birmingham jail and elimination of some privileges.

On May 17 at the city’s Boutwell Auditorium, the Class of 1963 will finally get to have its prom. Alumni from about 10 formerly “colored” high schools are coming together with the help of the city of Birmingham to put on the event. The price of admission — $19.63.

“Some people tell us, ‘That was 50 years ago. Get over it,’ ” Thomas said. “But the fact remains, we didn’t have a prom. We didn’t have a yearbook. It was almost as if we were locked down under martial law.”

The prom, she said, is “about healing a wound — a wound that has been there for 50 years.”

Not having a prom had been the least of the threats from school officials who sought to discourage students from participating in the civil rights marches, said Brenda Phillips Hong, a graduate of Western-Olin High School. “There was the threat of not graduating after going to school for 12 years,” she said. “There was the threat of being expelled from school, and there was that chance your mother would get you because she told you not to go downtown and march in the first place.”

Not having a prom left a void, Hong said. Her family had bought her long prom dress on sale after Easter at an upscale store. Her sister-in-law in California had sent her shoes to wear to the prom.

The students of 1963 learned to deal with disappointments and being put down by whites. They have memories of growing up in a world where they were not treated as equals. They vividly recall sitting at the back of the bus because that was the law, or holding their peace while being taunted by whites.

“Just think about going into a store and trying on clothes but having to buy them, even if they didn’t fit,” Hong said. “There were very few stores that would allow blacks to try on clothing in the dressing rooms.”

The prom on May 17 will be an opportunity for these former students, many of them now retired, to enjoy a special night in a city that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. “We need an opportunity to replace those memories with happy memories,” Thomas said.