The Undoing of a Tennessee Town
Jo Ann Allen Boyce and 11 other students desegregated their high school in Clinton, Tennessee. Then the riots came.
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in The Firsts, a five-part series about the children who desegregated America’s schools.
The dress Jo Ann Allen Boyce had picked out for her first day of school, August 27, 1956, was beautiful: a black top and matching skirt with a pattern around the hem. Her grandmother had made it. In fact, her grandmother, a brilliant seamstress, had made Jo Ann an entire wardrobe of clothes for that first week.
Jo Ann had given herself bangs and wore her long hair down. “For some reason I thought that was a really cute hairdo,” she told me recently. She got ready and headed out the door. At Green McAdoo Elementary School, just down the road from her home in Clinton, Tennessee, she met up with nine other Black classmates, their pastor, and family members to pray.
For the two years before that late-summer Monday, her morning routine had been different. She typically rose with the sun, got dressed—in whatever felt right—and walked to catch a bus that would take her a little more than 20 miles east, first to Vine Junior High and then on to Austin High School, both in Knoxville. The bus ride usually took an hour. She felt relieved that morning because her commute was shorter, just a brief walk from her house. But her relief was temporary. It was the first day of the new reality in Clinton’s public schools—in all of Tennessee’s public schools, for that matter. That day, 12 students—Jo Ann, Bobby Cain, Anna Theresser Caswell, Minnie Ann Dickey, Gail Ann Epps, Ronald Gordon Hayden, William Latham, Alvah Jay McSwain, Maurice Soles, Robert Thacker, Regina Turner, and Alfred Williams—would be the first Black students in Tennessee to attend a desegregated state-supported high school.
The prayer steeled the students, who had been preparing for that moment all summer. They had heard about how poorly integration had gone elsewhere—about the mobs, the slurs hurled at Black students, the violence. But this was Clinton. “Nothing bad had ever happened to us here,” Boyce said. She doesn’t remember having to step off the sidewalk when white people passed by, as was common in other southern towns. But segregation had still been the law. “We couldn’t sit at the counter or go to restaurants; we went to the back of the bus; we had our own bathrooms—our own water fountains clearly marked colored only.” Segregation in public schools was now illegal, though, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and she expected the white citizens of Clinton to at least respect the law.
While the Black students had been preparing to enroll, the leadership at the high school had been preparing white students for integration. At the end of the spring semester, administrators gathered white students in the auditorium and explained how they were to behave when their Black classmates arrived. It was a crash course in civility, if not tolerance.
As Boyce and her classmates departed from Green McAdoo and descended down the hill, they didn’t see much. “There weren’t too many people,” she said. The crowd consisted largely of white high-school students angling to get a better look at the Black students. She remembers three very young boys who held signs, however. we won’t go to school with negroes, the placards read.
Still, aside from the signs, the first day went well. The Black students felt fairly safe. There was only one Black student per classroom, which meant that Boyce and her best friend, Gail, were not together, but the teachers were welcoming. “They were interested in teaching their classes,” she said. “They were not going to allow any outside agitation or whatever to enter the classroom. So if a loud noise came from outside, if someone yelled, they would get up and close the windows.”
This congeniality extended to Boyce’s election as vice president of her homeroom class. She had run against a member of the football team. “It’s just that Jo Ann is so pretty and smart and has such a wonderful personality,” Carol Peters, a classmate and the president of the Future Homemakers of America Club, told The New York Times at the time. But the calm faded. The teachers, Jo Ann said, wanted to keep order, but as the days went by, they realized that there was only so much they could do.
Boyce’s family members were not strangers to the Jim Crow South. Her father, Herbert, was born in Luverne, Alabama, a timbering town in the southeastern part of the state. He left Alabama for Clinton—six hours from Luverne as the crow flies—when he was in his 20s and looking for work. Her mother, Alice Josephine, was from nearby Oliver Springs, Tennessee, where Jo Ann’s grandfather was a farmer and a lumberjack. On September 15, 1941—one year after a Black man was lynched in Luverne—Jo Ann was born in Clinton.
She was not able to go to public pools or skating rinks growing up. But the small town did have a school that Black students could attend: Green McAdoo. One teacher taught first through fourth graders together as a group. Another teacher—typically the principal—taught fifth through eighth graders. The textbooks were old, hand-me-downs from the white elementary school down the road. They were “clearly marked ‘obsolete.’ They were stamped,” Boyce told me. What they lacked in resources, however, the teachers made up for in dedication. Her first teacher, she said, “really wanted us to learn. She was insistent that we learn how to write well and read well, that we understood math and science.” But as fourth grade turned into fifth, and the Black students became more “rowdy,” learning became more difficult. “But if you were interested in learning, you did okay. I did okay.”
Education for Black students in the town ended in eighth grade, and if parents wanted their children to attend high school they had to pay for transportation to send them outside of Clinton. Even though Boyce had friends who had continued on at school in Knoxville, 20 miles away, she still felt anxious about leaving home. “I felt like a country bumpkin in a city school,” she laughed. She went to the all-Black Vine Junior High School for ninth grade, but she never quite felt comfortable. It began with the ride, which “was uncomfortable,” she said. “Hot during the summer. Very cold during the winter.” Then there were her new classmates.
She had a hard time making friends. After all, one year is a short adjustment period after having been in the same school for eight years, and the hour-long drive each way meant that there was no room for extracurriculars at school. “I remember there were things I wanted to join that I would have had to be involved in after school and I couldn’t.” Both of her parents worked, and neither of them could pick her up.
That transportation issue became too much for some Black families. With 12 children, including triplets who would soon start school, one family, the McSwains, had had enough. They would ultimately have to pay to send all of their children to school in Knoxville. They had already sent two of their children to Austin High School, and it had been expensive.
Meanwhile, Clinton High School—the white school—was a short walk away. Two other Black families with several children, the Dickies and the Willises, joined the suit. Together, they sued the county board of education, arguing that it was the county’s responsibility to at least provide a separate and equal facility for the Black students. Having to go to Knoxville every day was an injustice, and it needed to be addressed. In 1950, the families took their case to court, and in 1952 it landed before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, where Judge Robert Taylor presided over the case.
Taylor didn’t buy the families’ argument. Tennessee was trying its hardest to educate both Black and white students, he wrote in his lengthy opinion. He disregarded the outdated books, the overstuffed classes, the lack of instructors. “The riding of a bus by the student plaintiffs is a small contribution upon their part and that of their parents toward the success of this effort, too small to be regarded as a denial of constitutional rights,” he wrote in his decision on April 26, 1952.
Then came Brown v. Board of Education. Separate was not equal, and schools needed to integrate with all deliberate speed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed Taylor’s decision and sent the case back to him. The country’s position on segregation had changed, and his jurisprudence would need to change as well. He ruled that the school needed to integrate. Clinton High School was required to enroll Black students who wanted to attend. And it needed to be done as early as 1956.
Boyce and her classmates took placement exams, and every one of the 12 Black students who would attend Clinton High the following year placed in his or her appropriate class. The group included a pair of seniors; Boyce and her friend Gail, who were juniors; and a handful of sophomores and freshmen. They began preparing mentally. That fall, they would desegregate the public schools in Tennessee.
The post-integration calm in Clinton was brief. If the first day was fairly calm, the subsequent days were a steady escalation of violence. Boyce first felt things changing when she opened her locker on the second day and saw that her books had been torn. The vandals had left a note inside the cabinet: “Go home Nigger.”
On her first day, Boyce had worn her hair long, proud. But after that, white students would walk up behind her in the halls and yank it. “You would never know who it was,” she said. “They would make plenty of space by the time you had recovered and turned around.” On the third day of that first week, the ruckus outside the school grew. Inside, students would step on the back of the Black students’ heels. Gail remembers her heels being stepped on until they bled.
John Kasper, a 26-year-old segregationist and Ku Klux Klan member, had also started organizing in town. The walk to school became treacherous for the Black students as the mob threw rocks, bottles, sticks, and rotten tomatoes and eggs at them. “It felt like you were being squeezed” walking into the building, Boyce said. “They weren’t that close, but it felt that way, like you were being smothered by these rows of people on the side of the road.” Students put tacks on the chairs. The slurs piled up: Pickaninny. Coon. Jungle bunny. Kasper had been calling white families to tell them they shouldn’t want their kids to go to school with Black people, because that would lead to interracial marriage. Leading up to Labor Day, Kasper incited nearly 3,000 people to protest integration in Clinton. The mob became unwieldy, and a group of local volunteers organized to keep the peace. “A volunteer citizens’ police unit dispersed a jeering, taunting crowd on Clinton’s courthouse lawn tonight with six tear gas bombs,” a front-page story of The New York Times read on September 2. For his role in agitating the group, Kasper was sentenced to a year in prison.
The governor sent in troops to keep the peace—not just for the security of the Black students, but for the town’s sake, as well. Following Kasper’s arrest, Asa Earl Carter, the head of the North Alabama Citizens’ Council, arrived in Clinton and “delivered a speech attacking integration,” the Times reported. “After the speech a mob began stopping cars on the highway, ripping out ornaments and smashing the windows.” Roughly 200 men organized to march toward the mayor’s home before the sheriff stopped them.
For the Clinton 12, as the group would come to be known, the first week was a wake-up call. “Now we know,” Boyce remembered thinking. “Now we know they aren’t going to accept this the way we thought.” Some white students began withdrawing from school. The friendly smiles in the hallway stopped. White students moved their desks away from Black students. Still, Boyce never considered going back to Austin High School. “I didn’t like that bus ride, to tell you the truth,” she told me, laughing. “I liked the fact that I could wake up a little later and walk down the hill and go to school.”
By November, after months of intimidation, several members of the Clinton 12 had stopped attending school. Someone had set off an explosion outside of Alvah McSwain’s home. Someone had fired bullets at Alfred Williams’s house. But in early December, thanks to coaxing by Paul Turner, a local white minister who vowed to protect them, the students decided to return to school. The minister had not been at the forefront of the fight for integration. He had taken to using his pulpit to preach peaceful integration, but he was not prone to marching. However, now he felt that it was his duty to do more. The riots had gotten out of hand, and he figured if a man of the cloth was helping the students get to school, he could stave off some of the animosity toward them. “He thought it was important that we return to the school,” Boyce, who was among those who briefly stopped attending, told me.
On December 4, 1956, Turner escorted the 10 students who remained at Clinton—two had left in September and weren’t coming back—to school. On his way home, he was severely beaten by white supremacists, who bounced his head against the fender of a car and broke his nose. That Sunday, however, he was back in the pulpit, wearing a brown suit with a white carnation on his lapel, his nose still swollen and his eye black. His message: “There is no color line around the cross of Jesus.”
The school was closed for the next several days, and when it reopened on December 9, only nine Black students returned. Boyce was not among them. Her parents felt that enough was enough, and her mother decided to move the family to California. “I was surprised that she wanted us to get out of there and leave and go thousands of miles away, because right next door was her mother and her sister and her brothers,” Boyce said. But fear for her daughter—and her family’s safety—had pushed her over the edge. “It wasn’t going to get much better,” Boyce told me.
The family moved to Los Angeles, where Boyce attended Susan Miller Dorsey High School. It was desegregated, she said, “but it wasn’t integrated.” Black students, white students, and Asian students all kept to their own groups, segregated patches in the integrated space.
Back in Clinton, other students left over time. Bobby Cain graduated in 1957, and Gail graduated in 1958. But they are the only two of the original 12 that finished school at Clinton High. The school was bombed the next year, on October 5, 1958, and three explosions reduced the building to rubble. No one was injured, nor was anyone ever arrested. The FBI dropped its investigation when two of the primary suspects died. (Local citizens eventually rebuilt the school.)
There are glancingly few Black students in Clinton’s public schools now, and Black students make up just 1 percent of the entire district.
Boyce stayed in Los Angeles. She became a pediatric nurse, working in hospitals for 30 years, and sang jazz in a cabaret theater. She married and had children, and her children had children. And she still speaks with anyone who will listen about the experience of the Clinton 12, because it’s easy to forget how hard progress is to win, and the courage it takes along the way.