50 Years Late, a Prom Comes to Birmingham


(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.

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.