Waiting 50 years for “Prom we never had”

Shirley Holmes Sims

Shirley Holmes Sims

Age 17 in 1963

One of the most festive events held during Birmingham’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary was a gala Historic Prom, the work of a few feisty women from the class of ’63 whose senior prom had been canceled due to the city’s unrest. They always felt they had been punished for joining the Children’s March in May 1963, in protest against the city’s official segregation policies. And now they’ve had their prom!

1963 was pure hell for me beginning in January.  We were human; however, we were not treated as such.  Things were totally different. There was a separation of Black people and White people at this time.  By this time things began to change in our city and it was really sad to know that you were thought of as nothing but an unacceptable person.  You could not sit beside a White person on the bus and you couldn’t sit and dine with them either.  We could not go to the better movie theaters nor could we try on clothing that we attempted to purchase.

By this time in my heart I knew it was time for a change. My only thought was, when, where, and how. In the spring of 1963, all of the Black people stopped shopping in the department stores in downtown Birmingham. It hurt a little because I enjoyed shopping; however, I stopped for a cause and that cause showed the other people we were just as equal as they were and our money made their money grow.

So without our money things did change a little bit.  We stopped riding the buses and began to walk.  It helped some of us because we needed to lose weight anyway. All in all, God moves in mysterious ways.

As seniors at A.H. Parker High School we began to look forward to the day we would graduate. Preparing for the prom was the main thing on our minds at this time.  Then in the early part of May, around May 2, I think, the Children’s March was held. A lot of the students from the school participated. I was one of the students that marched on that day and only that day.

Then things began to happen.  There were two things after the Children’s March, one was a good thing and one was a bad thing in different ways. The good thing was, we were noticed and the Whites realized that we did matter and we were just as human as they were.  The bad thing was, we were denied our prom and almost our graduation.  At the last minute we were given the go-ahead for our Class Day. We only had our Class Day because our teacher, Mr. Bobby Jones, had already prepared us for the unexpected, and that was good.  The graduation date was changed to the 2nd of June 1963.

Years went by and we always had class reunion meetings, and things were always discussed about the prom that was taken away from us. However, in December 2012, Earnestine Thomas, Frances Faulks, and I (Shirley Sims) from A.H. Parker High School and Brenda Hong from Western-Olin High School got together in bi-weekly meetings to discuss putting this prom together.  After a month, we had two other ladies to join, Patricia Hendrix from Carver High School and Ethel Arms from Ullman High School. We worked very hard to get the prom together and we did. We had a great time and I met several people that did not go to or have a prom. This was news to me because I thought only the Negro high schools in Birmingham at that time missed out on prom, but there were others from different cities and states.

We had a great time because God was on our side from the beginning to the end and the City of Birmingham gave us 100% support.  Things have changed in Birmingham in the past 50 years. Instead of shutting down the prom, the city opened the doors of one of its large venues, Boutwell Auditorium, and provided security. We had a band, a DJ, food, and decorations.

The night of the Historic Prom, I said, “Tonight is the first night of the rest of my life.  Fifty years ago I was sad, but tonight I’m happy.”

It was well worth waiting 50 years for the “Prom we never had.”

Shirley Holmes Sims wrote this story for Kids in Birmingham 1963. For a real feel of what the May 2013 Historic Prom was like, see news coverage: Historic 1963 prom planned during civil rights commemoration, by Cyrondys Jackson; 50 years later, Birmingham’s Class of 1963 celebrates the prom they never got to have, by Jon Reed; and A Birmingham Prom 50 Years in the Making and 50 Years Late, a Prom Comes to Birmingham by Denise Stewart.