A Birmingham Prom 50 Years in the Making

Class of '63 finally gets a ball that was denied to those who participated in the Children's March.

The Electric Slide packed the dance floor at the 1963 Historical Prom. (Denise Stewart)
The Electric Slide packed the dance floor at the 1963 Historical Prom. (Denise Stewart)

Several hundred people attended the prom, and many wore their school colors with pride. Most alums from Parker High School were dressed in purple and white. Several graduates of Carver High School dressed in red gowns. The dessert for the evening? Sheet cakes decorated with the mascots from Hayes, Carver, Western Olin, Parker and Woodlawn high schools.

The party had purpose — bringing the community together to help heal wounds from the past and also providing scholarships for students, said Ernestine Thomas, chairwoman of the prom committee and a 1963 graduate of Parker High School. Students throughout Birmingham submitted essays, and two graduating seniors from Wenonah High School were each awarded scholarships of $1,963.

Craig Witherspoon, current superintendent of the Birmingham Public City School System, said events such as the prom and the scholarship essay contest help bridge the gap between history and today for students.

“They can relate to being denied the privilege of attending the senior prom, and they can understand the sacrifices of others,” Witherspoon said.

In her essay, Alexandria Brooks spoke of the courage displayed by students in the past and said she hopes her generation can do the same. “Today’s students are afraid to stand up for one person bullied, let alone an entire race of people,” she said.

Students in 1963 came face to face with legendary Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. In her essay, Darlesia Sykes said: “If Mr. Connor were alive today, he would probably be very upset to see this event.”

Amie Mathews graduated from Carver High School in 1964, but she attended last night’s prom to celebrate with her friends. “I just wanted to be here,” said Matthews, who was arrested while participating in the Children’s March. “This is important.”

While Ethel Arms enjoyed the prom preparation and the celebration, she said there is still a message for today’s youths.

“We suffered and struggled for change,” she said. “We must not, we cannot become complacent.”

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