A Birmingham Prom 50 Years in the Making

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)

(The Root) — Ethel and Eugene Arms have three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Now, after 49 years of marriage, the Birmingham, Ala., couple have something they've waited on for 50 years: prom memories.


The Ullman High School sweethearts didn't go to the prom in 1963, because for students who attended black high schools in Birmingham, there wasn't one. In May 1963, hundreds of these students had protested for civil rights as part of the Children's March — facing fire hoses, dogs and police with clubs. Many went to jail, and several were kicked out of school. 

Officials at the time canceled senior proms and several other school activities, for safety reasons, they said. Students said the cancellations were punishment aimed at those who dared to stand up to protest segregation laws.

Neither Ethel nor Eugene Arms marched in the Children's March, but they were supportive, Eugene said. "I attended rallies. I worked, and I contributed money, but I yielded to my mother's wishes and didn't march," he said. "But just because you didn't march doesn't mean you didn't face discrimination or experience the denial of rights and privileges."

The year 1963 was a turning point in the South, but the changes did not come without sacrifice. People were beaten. Churches and residences were bombed. Images from Birmingham were shown around the world, raising awareness of the intense grip of segregation on blacks and forcing the courts and the government to yield to the call for human and civil rights.

Those days were gone but not forgotten Friday night as the rain poured outside the Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, where the prom for those who attended black high schools in 1963 was held. Eugene Arms escorted Ethel from a black stretch limo through the doors of a place that 50 years ago was reserved mostly for whites.

Ethel, a member of the prom planning committee, wore a black, strapless, floor-length gown. Of course, there was a corsage on her wrist. Eugene wore a black tuxedo with a black-and-white striped vest and bow tie.


The auditorium was decked in white tablecloths, white drapes and even white sofas and chairs. The caterer served a spread of shrimp, meatballs, fruit and fancy cheese. Onstage, the Connection Band played everything from Etta James' "At Last" to "The Electric Slide." Back in the day, Art Grayson was a regular guitarist at parties and juke joints. Friday night, the band invited him to return to the stage for some down-home blues on the guitar.

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.