Poems tell story of first black students at Tennessee school in ‘Promise of Change’

“WE HAD no idea that this would have a historical impact,” said Jo Ann Allen Boyce about that August morning in 1956 when she and 11 other teenagers first took their place as students in the formerly whites-only high school in their small Tennessee town.

Boyce had grown up in the segregated South, where black and white people lived in separate neighbourhoods, attended different schools and churches, and were often treated differently under the law.

In 1954, that began to change. That’s when the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools violated the US Constitution. The justices said schools in the United States had to be desegregated.

Two years later, 14-year-old Jo Ann and the other teens walked down the hill from their African-American neighbourhood in Clinton and entered Clinton High School, the first public high school in the South to be desegregated.

The Clinton 12, as they came to be known, were met initially by a few white protesters. By the end of the first week of school, this number had swelled to a mob of thousands.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce stands in front of a display about the ‘Clinton 12’ at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, Tennessee

Boyce and co-author Debbie Levy tell the story of Boyce’s experience during these months of hope, pain and change in This Promise of Change.

The two authors spoke to KidsPost about their book, which has an unusual form: nonfiction poems.

“Poetry has an emotional impact,” which seems in keeping with this powerful story, Levy said.

The poetic form helps capture what Levy called the ‘musical quality’ of young Jo Ann’s voice. And the authors could easily insert details that help bring Jo Ann alive on the page, such as her love of family and passion for music and learning.

The book also includes historic photos, a timeline, newspaper headlines and short quotes from interviews with Jo Ann, her parents, the school principal and other students.

Chilling facts emerge. The Clinton 12 were frequently taunted and shoved. Thugs broke into the school and threatened teachers. A white minister, offering protection, was attacked after he walked Jo Ann and her friends to school.

Many of these brutal acts were committed by people outside Clinton, reveals Jo Ann in the book. They were motivated by the hate speech of a white supremacist named John Kasper.

Grown up and living in Los Angeles, California, Boyce often visited schools and talked about the Clinton 12. She had strong memories, but her career as a pediatric nurse didn’t leave much time for writing.

In 2015, Levy’s literary agent introduced Boyce and Levy, a well-known children’s author who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and the two decided to create a book together. They emailed and talked on the phone for hours as Levy gathered the information she needed to write the poems. She then shared the poems with Boyce for feedback and changes.

“Getting to know Debbie was my favourite part,” Boyce said.

Levy especially enjoyed their shared research trip to Clinton. They interviewed Gail Ann Epps Upton, Boyce’s best friend from childhood and one of the Clinton 12. They also visited the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, where 12 life-size bronze statues depict the students’ historic walk.

As they speak at schools, Boyce and Levy can tell from the questions that young people are thinking deeply about the issues in the book.

“These issues of social justice are still important today,” Levy said.

Boyce said she hopes the book will “touch hearts.” Readers may even be inspired to help create positive change, as did the heroic Clinton 12. – Photo and text by The Washington Post