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The Backstory on "Prom"

Many of us know that prom is this weekend, but not many of us know where the idea of prom even came from. So, where did this iconic high school event originate, and can it be traced back to some racist, homophobic, and even sexist roots?

First of all, prom is short for “promenade” which means to take a leisurely walk or a paved walkway. Proms started out as a banquet in the 19th century that was held to celebrate a graduating class at a given school. Unlike modern times, prom was usually held for seniors in college, not high school, but eventually, prom made its way into American high school culture in the 1940s.

Prior to the 1940s, proms were traditionally held in the school’s gymnasium, but coming out of the Great Depression and World War II and into a more prosperous era of the United States’ economy, American high schools were starting to book country clubs and hotels for the occasion. In fact, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy had to reschedule a fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton all because of John Burroughs High School’s prom that was taking place on the same night. Kennedy also made a speech at the prom. One interesting destination for prom was the White House. In 1975, President Gerald Ford’s daughter’s prom was held at the one and only 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nowadays, prom is seen as a time for everyone to take a break from the stresses of schoolwork and have fun with friends, but it wasn’t always welcoming to everyone. Proms were racially segregated, just like much of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some proms didn’t even allow black students at all. In 1954, proms at majority-white high schools held two proms after the Brown v. Board of Education case. White students had a “whites only” prom while black students had another, completely separate prom.

Actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for Charleston High School’s prom in 1997 if they agreed to have one prom for everyone. Charleston High School declined the offer and held segregated proms until 2008! In Georgia, Wilcox County High School had its first integrated prom in 2013.

Prom not only excluded students of color but LGBTQ+ students too. The first openly gay men to go to prom together was in 1979. Fickle v. Lynch was a court case that was taken to the U.S. District Court all because the principal of Cumberland High School in Rhode Island wouldn’t allow Aaron Fickle to attend prom with his friend Paul Gilbert in 1980. The court sided with Fickle. Chicago Public Schools has held a queer prom. In an interview with Windy City Times, Noa Padowitz, co-founder of Chicago GSA Prom, has said “CPS allows students to bring any high school-aged partner to prom, however, due to social pressure, some students do not feel comfortable bringing same-sex or gender non-conforming partners to their home school's prom.”

Historically, prom wasn’t a place for women to challenge gender roles either. Proms of the past didn’t allow women to wear masculine clothing and held social norms of boys asking girls to prom.

Overall, prom hasn’t always been a welcoming place for all students, but it is progressing.

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