This Promise of Change


In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional. The ruling changed the course of history and the lives of students — Black and White — nationwide.

Before the Brown decision, Black high school students in Clinton, Tenn., traveled more than 20 miles each way to Knoxville, to attend an all-Black high school because the only high school in Clinton, only five minutes away, was for White students. But Brown changed that.

At 14, Jo Ann Allen Boyce was one of 12 students who integrated the White high school in Clinton in 1956, a year before the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in Arkansas. While the world witnessed the hatred that the Little Rock Nine endured, the story of the Clinton 12 is lesser known. However, the Black students were also threatened and intimidated while desegregating a White school. Boyce left Clinton High School after only four months. Afraid for her daughter’s safety, her mother moved the family to California. The school was bombed in 1958.

In her new children’s book, This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in The Fight for School Equality, Boyce recounts her experience desegregating Clinton High School. Boyce, 78, talked to The Crisis about her experience and her disappointment in the lack of school integration 65 years after the Brown decision.

The Crisis: Tell me about growing up in Clinton, Tenn.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce: Well, it was a small town. Not too many Whites, not too many Blacks. Very few Blacks, actually. The Blacks lived in a neighborhood we called “The Hill.” We were very tight, a very tight community. We looked out for each other. We had two churches, Methodists, Baptists and all of us kids went to one elementary school. We had a two-room school. One teacher for one through four, and one teacher for five through eight. Our socialization came from going to church together, singing in the church choir, being there all day long. We had Friday night fish-frys at the church. And we would go to school and have musicals. We would have plays and that was pretty much what we had to do, because there was nothing for us within the town. We didn't have any pools or anything for us, so we didn't go swimming. There was a community center in our town, but we couldn't use it because we were Black. There was a library. We couldn't use that either because we were Black.

And the school, the high school was for all Whites. The White elementary school, of course, was a larger school and had one classroom per grade. That was the way it was in the South and we made the best of it. You didn't have to like [it] but that was your life and you made the best of it.

The Crisis: What did your parents do?

Boyce: My mother was a domestic. My mother unfortunately had to leave school to help her family. She left at 16 years old and she went to work for this family, and she stayed with them until we moved to California. She was 45.

My father got a job wherever he could get a job. He worked in a car sales place. He would wash the cars. He would be able to fix something on a car. He would deliver cars. Or he worked as a janitor. In Oak Ridge, Tenn., there was work for African Americans as long as they were doing janitorial work or a waiter, or something like that. But my dad would also go to Detroit to work in the car industry when there was nothing to do near where we lived. He and his friends would get in their car and they would drive from our little town to Detroit. Now, that was pretty far. And during the winter when it snowed, they could slide off the road. They did that many times. Driving conditions were really bad.

The Crisis: Did you know what integration was?

Boyce: After a while, yes. We talked about it for many years, actually. We had to pay to go to the county where we were going to school, to the all-Black high school. We had to pay because we were outside of their area. There was a family that had 12 kids, and their next set of kids that were eligible for school were triplets. So they were going to have to pay for each one of them and they couldn't afford it. So they filed a lawsuit. And, now, that was, I think, 1951, '52.

The Crisis: So what was your opinion at the age of 14 of the Brown decision.

Boyce: I think for us it was probably not something we thought about all that much. It was like, "O.K., it happened, and now we know it's not legal to have segregated schools." But I don't think we really got the real grasp of what that meant until we actually started school. It was like, we didn't even know we were doing something that was going to be considered historical. I think that our first thought was, "Oh, now we don't have to get on that bus and go all the way to Knoxville." That was probably it.

And then, the second thing we thought, "How are we going to be accepted?" Now, Clinton was not the worst place in the world for Black people. It was nothing like if you lived further south, like Mississippi or Alabama.

The Crisis: How did you prepare for your first day of school?

Boyce: I prepared more with my clothes than anything. I had a grandmother who could sew. She was a seamstress. She could really make beautiful things and she made me an entirely new wardrobe. I had a new outfit for every day. And believe me, honey, the night before, I was looking at, "Oh, boy. That's my wardrobe." Other than that, I think prayer. We prayed a lot for our safety.

The Crisis: Tell me about that. Would all the students meet at someone's house to pray? Would you meet at one of the churches? How did that work?

Boyce: We didn't specifically go to anyone's home but we did do it at churches, our individual churches. We knew our ministers were saying prayers for us. But the one big thing we did every school day is, we met in front of our old elementary school and we held hands and we had a prayer before we walked down that hill.

The Crisis: Tell me about your first day.

Boyce: First day was actually pretty O.K. We thought things were actually going to go well, because some kids were actually friendly, speaking with us, smiling at us. My homeroom, I was nominated to be a vice president of the homeroom and I actually won that position. Now, I never got to do anything with that position because, over time, all that niceness on the first few days just deteriorated. The kids who were nice to us initially were afraid after a while because they were threatened too.

So it wasn't just Whites hating us Black kids. It was also Whites intimidating White kids for doing the right thing. And so, that took away all that special feeling that you got the first day when you thought, "Oh, it's going to be O.K., because everybody seems to be accepting of us. We seem to be doing well." And now, all of a sudden we're not. Things turned ugly.

The Crisis: What about the teachers? How did they treat you?

Boyce: The teachers were good. Some of them were particularly nice. Some of them were very kind. There were those who didn't want it though, and you knew it. You could tell they didn't want you there. My girlfriend even heard one teacher make a remark. One of the students said something about not wanting to be there with a — she probably used the N-word, and the teacher said, "Well, I don't like it either, honey, but we have to do it.” But overall, I would say the teachers were really good.

The Crisis: Were the classes better than at the all-Black high school in Knoxville? Where they different? Did you take Advanced Placement courses or honors courses?

Boyce: No. I cannot say that classes were better. I can't say that the teachers were better. I can't say anything about that experience, as far as things being better.

The Crisis: Was the building better?

Boyce: No, not necessarily. There was really nothing about the high school in Knoxville versus the high school in Clinton being better. What was better was it was closer. And what we hoped for over time would be that we would be involved in extracurricular activities, which we could not do at Knoxville. We could not stay there after school. We could not be involved in basketball, or football, or any of those things. We had to get on the bus. Thing was, once we went to Clinton we couldn't be involved in that either, because we were the only high school that was integrated. All the other high schools were still segregated. And so, a desegregated school with Black kids on its football team couldn't play a segregated school. So it really didn't change, as far as that's concerned.

The Crisis: You left the school after only four months. Your mother moved the family to California. Why?

Boyce: The things that happened that made my mother afraid were things that would happen in the school, inside now, before it was outside and now it's begun to be inside. And the more incidents that would happen, the more we would get pulled out of school. Cops would come. They would say, "We've heard this. You got to go." Or, at some point it got so bad that our parents kept us home and asked that we have more protection, which wasn't going to be forthcoming anyway.

One of the ministers in town, a White minister, came [to our house] and he said, "Please send your kids back to school. It's morally right. They should be there." And he said, "I'll walk them to school." And he was a well-known, well-liked minister, very young. And he came, he walked us down to school and he was immediately attacked and beaten, and they broke his nose.

The Crisis: Who beat him up?

Boyce: White men.

The Crisis: So when you guys would be walking to school, would you be threatened?

Boyce: Oh, yes. Rocks, rotten food, sticks, anything like that would wiz by your head. You were lucky not to get hit, besides all the awful words. Think of all the racist things that they can call you. And they would spit at us, scream at us, "Go back to Africa." I used to love that one, "Go back to Africa." I never been.

Over time, it was just the culmination of all the things that were happening, just kept happening, kept happening and my mother just got more and more afraid.

The Crisis: Was there any time you wanted to leave?

Boyce: I don't think I ever wanted to leave, no. In fact, when my parents made the decision we were going to move to California, I didn't want to go. I absolutely did not want to leave. Because, by now, I am fully engaged in what we're doing and I'm fully aware of the importance of what we're doing. I especially did not want to leave my friend because she and I were the only two juniors. As it was, we were going to classes by ourselves. There would be only one Black kid in a room. They split us up. I didn't want to leave her. And to this day, I feel badly about that. That was 60 years ago.

The Crisis: In that four months, what did you learn about yourself?

Boyce: I learned that I had strength that I didn't really have to play on before. But I had such strong parents. I had a fabulous mother and father. And I owe them all the strength that I had. If you had parents like mine, you would never be doubtful of your ability, your capability, none of that. You always knew that when you grew up you were going to be somebody.

The Crisis: How did your experience change your perspective of the world?

Boyce: The schools here in California had been desegregated a long time before in the South. So my expectations were very different. I thought I was going to have this relationship with people like I thought I was going to have at Clinton High School. I thought I was going to make new friends, that kind of thing.

Yes, [the school] was desegregated and there were all kinds of kids — Asian kids, Hispanics. From that standpoint, it was great because now I'm thinking, "O.K., I can learn more about people of the world," which was so exciting for me. That is what I've always wanted. But what I found out though, was at lunch time, at break time, everybody went to their own tribe. There was no integration at all, or even desegregation at all. It was in the classroom, yes, but outside the classroom that wasn't happening. So it took me a while to get used to that.

The Crisis: How did your experience integrating Clinton High School shape who you are today?

Boyce: I believe it made me want to be involved, like be an activist against racism and against hatred. I think that's probably the way it's shaped me the most. I always say I don't understand hatred. I didn't understand it when I was growing up. I didn't understand why people didn't like me because I was a different color from them. I mean, it's like the minute you meet somebody you can't hate them, because you don't know them. And so it's shaped me to want to teach and speak to young people, in particular. A lot of kids are getting their hatred — I call hatred a disease of the heart — and it comes from being taught. It's not a disease that you're born with.

"If we hadn't taken that chance to walk down the hill, we would still have to be on that bus going 20 miles away. So yes, it was worth it."

The Crisis: The story of the Little Rock Nine is well-known. Why don't more people know about the Clinton 12?

Boyce: We were well-known initially. We were in the newspapers everywhere. We were on television – the Edward R. Murrow show, which was a huge show at that time. I was on and my dad. The school was bombed in 1958 and people were reporting it. And then after 1958 it was like it just totally disappeared. It wasn't being taught in schools, for one thing. And I can go up to a bunch of kids and say, "How many of you kids have heard about [the] Arkansas Nine," and every hand practically will go up. And I say, "Well, how many of you know about the Clinton 12?" No one.

Their governor in Arkansas [Orval Faubus] was awful. Our governor was less awful. He sent in troops to protect us. The Arkansas governor sent in troops to keep the kids out of school. So there was a little more notoriety, plus the president of the United States [Dwight D. Eisenhower] got involved in Arkansas, which he did not get involved in, in Clinton.

The Crisis: You described being terrorized both inside and outside Clinton High School. When you see that schools are still segregated today, do you think it was worth it?

Boyce: Yes. It was worth it because if we hadn't done it we wouldn't be as far as we are. We aren't that far but we would be even worse. And I'm not a person who believes that necessarily every school in our nation is ever going to be fully desegregated because there's too much economic disparity. But if we hadn't taken that chance to walk down the hill, we would still have to be on that bus going 20 miles away. So yes, it was worth it.

The Crisis: Why did you name your book, This Promise of Change?

Boyce: Because there were a lot of promises made when Brown v. Board happened. It was a promise to all the kids, not just Black kids, but to White kids, whatever color. It was a promise that we're going to make this change. We're going to have these schools now that one of your classmates sitting next to you will be a person of a different color, and now you're going to get a chance to learn about another culture. You're going to get a chance to learn how much you are alike. It is one of the things that I totally regret, that we never went so far in Clinton to get to know one another. Those girls in the classes would find out how much I like to wear pretty clothes like they did, or how much music that I liked that they liked, or how much our churches were alike, and they were.

So in passing Brown v. Board, we were going to have this great opportunity to get to know other people, to get to go to school with other people. And when I went to California, that's exactly what happened. In Clinton there were few people outside of Black and White. But in California I had that opportunity.

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The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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