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.

She moved away to Ohio not long after completing high school but returned to Birmingham in 1973 and worked as a nurse for 32 years before retiring.

This year Birmingham is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the pivotal events of the 1963 civil rights movement. Shirley Holmes Sims, another Parker graduate assisting in organizing the prom, said that the idea came about because in almost every gathering of alumni and friends, someone mentions that there was no prom for the spring Class of ’63.

In May of 1963, Sims walked out of Parker High School and marched about three miles to the 16th Street Baptist Church to meet up with students from other schools, such as Hong. She and her schoolmates walked more than 10 miles, singing all the way, ready to march for change, Hong said.

Thomas said that she wanted to march. But because she lived with her grandfather, who could face repercussions on his job in the boiler room of the Tutwiler Hotel if she did so, she reluctantly stayed in school. She watched as her friends ran out the door of the school. Her history teacher told her to go into the classroom and sit down. The principal was telling the students they couldn’t leave. 

After the marches, word spread of cancellation of events, alumni said.

“They told us they were doing it for our safety. It was punishment,” Sims said.  “We almost didn’t have graduation,” she said. “It wasn’t until June that we actually graduated.”

The pomp and circumstance of high school graduation in 1963 was basically overlooked, alumni said, although completing high school was a big thing. “Churches had baccalaureate programs. Students would get their caps and gowns days in advance and wear them around the neighborhood. We didn’t get to do that,” Thomas said.

Things have changed in Birmingham in the past 50 years. Instead of shutting down the prom, the city is opening the doors of one of its large venues and providing security, Sims said.

This year there will be a band, a DJ, food and decorations. And Earnestine Thomas will have a date and a brand-new dress.

“When I was in high school, I was fat. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I was going to wear a dress that one of the neighbors had bought me to wear to the Imperial Club’s Debutante Ball in December. It was a winter dress, but it was all that I had.”

This week she’ll pick up her lavender prom dress from David’s Bridal.

“It’s a short, after-five style with a jacket,” she said. “I didn’t want a long one. I didn’t want to trip over it with these [bad] knees.”

Organizers hope to attract at least 300 people to the event, Sims said. They’ve been working since December to plan the prom, and they’ve recently revved up efforts to sell tickets.

“Tickets are $19.63 in advance, $25.63 the week of the prom and $30.63 per person at the door,” Sims said. “We’re going use the money we have left over to award scholarships to two Birmingham graduating seniors in the Class of 2013.”

Denise Stewart grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s and is a freelance journalist based in Alabama.