"Even though it was a winter dress, I was going to wear it to the prom," Thomas said. "But in one fell swoop, that was wiped away."
Civil rights come to Birmingham
There is disagreement over why prom was canceled for those five black high schools in 1963.
The civil rights movement was in full swing that year, but the high school students, to an extent, were kept at a distance from it.
This would change on May 2, 1963, when hundreds of children, some as young as 6, left school to march in Birmingham in opposition to segregation.
Thousands of arrests were made at the so-called Children's March, and when the marches persisted for several days, authorities responded with fire hoses and dogs.
"This was a very controversial thing," said Glenn T. Eskew, a history professor at Georgia State University who has written a book about Birmingham during this period. "There were those who did not believe that schoolchildren should be engaging in civil rights protests. Not only was it dangerous, but they were youth and it was a very confrontational thing."
The images of children being hosed and intimidated by police dogs renewed a level of outrage at the national level that had been flagging.
"It changed the dynamic of the protest dramatically," Eskew said. "It encouraged other youth to participate on one hand, and on the other it ratcheted up the pressure on the forces of white supremacy."
Only a fraction of students from the black high schools participated. Many were told by their parents not to participate, for fear of losing a job or other retribution.
Thomas didn't march because her grandfather expressed concerns that he might be fired if someone saw her protesting.
But everyone would be affected by the protests, whether they marched or not.
Days after the marches, the school board announced that all end-of-the-year activities were canceled for the class of 1963. No prom, no graduation, no yearbook.
The stated reason for the cancellations was security concerns; that in such a tense racial atmosphere, a gathering such as a graduation ceremony or prom could become the target of an attack.
Yet many believe that the events were taken away as a punishment for their participation in the marches.
If the authorities were truly concerned about the safety of the black students, they would not have met them with fire hoses and snarling dogs, said Bishop Calvin Woods, director of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It was Woods, who was a father with children at the schools, who sued to have graduation reinstated.
A court eventually ordered graduation must go on, and it did, though delayed. But prom never happened.
Shirley Holmes Sims had her copper-colored dress ready to go when she left school to participate in the Children's March. And copper-colored shoes to match.
They would go unworn, and be lost decades later in a tornado.
"We marched down that street and we were singing 'We Shall Overcome,'" Sims said. "You think back to it today, and it was truly worth it."
Righting a wrong
Ethel Arms has a line she uses when the topic of high school rites of passage and prom comes up: "We didn't have a prom because of the civil rights movement."
It puts the memory of 1963 in perspective and justifies the sacrifice.
Yet it doesn't change the fact that inside, she has always lamented that she never had that night.