ABINGDON, Va. — Jo Ann Allen Boyce simply wanted to go to school.
She lived in East Tennessee, but it was the 1950s, and her family did not want to travel over the icy roads and take the long haul to Knoxville, where she could attend high school for African Americans.
So Jo Ann, at age 14, enrolled in the high school of Clinton, Tennessee, not too far from Knoxville.
Even so, these were the days of segregation, and in 1956, mixing blacks with whites could be a volatile situation.
Boyce became known as one of the “Clinton 12” — that is, one of 12 African American students who enrolled in school at Clinton, despite protests by angry white mobs.
These students were ridiculed by the public as they entered the building, said Boyce, now 78.
“Things began to deteriorate,” Boyce recalled during a telephone interview. “Adults yelled at us.”
She was also taunted by students inside the school.
They stepped on her shoes.
They pulled her hair.
“We didn’t know what we were going through,” Boyce recalled. “We thought we would have some troubles but nothing like it turned out to be. ... It became very, very ugly.”
Yet not all was terrible, Boyce said.
“Teachers inside the school were helpful. Some were very helpful,” Boyce said. “There was an organized group with the football players to protect us.”
Even so, Boyce added, “Things just escalated over time, getting worse and worse.”
Still, she kept pursuing an education — until December of that year, when her mother finally had enough and uprooted the family to Los Angeles, California, where Boyce lives today.
Ultimately, out of the “Clinton 12,” two African Americans remained enrolled in the school long enough to graduate, said Boyce.
In the years since, Boyce has shared her story of educational endurance and penned a book on the matter titled “This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story for the Fight for School Equality.”
On Thursday, Boyce will speak in Abingdon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 124 E. Main St., at 5:30 p.m. to share her story as part of the town’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances.
Later, at Charles Wesley United Methodist Church, a program on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. will focus on diversity, said Buckey Boone, 69, the co-chairman of the Appalachian Peace Education Center in Abingdon.
That program on Jan. 18 is being followed by a march at 1:30 p.m. from Charles Wesley United Methodist Church to Abingdon United Methodist Church, where another celebration takes place at 2 p.m., with the county’s four high schools speaking on themes of King.
“And,” Boone said, “this will have music from a combined choir of all the middle and high school students, in addition to a choir from Virginia Highlands Community College.”