Five Ws About This Promise of Change by Debbie Levy and Jo Ann Allen Boyce
Sixty-three years ago, the nation’s newspapers were full of reports about a drama unfolding in a small southern town. Twelve students in Clinton, Tennessee were attempting to desegregate the only high school in their community. This was 1956, a year before Little Rock, and two years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation in public education violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
What went on in Clinton riveted the nation’s attention. A popular ABC news show, “College Press Conference,” invited two Clinton High School students, one black and one white, to fly to Washington, D.C., to interview President Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, for national broadcast. Separately, reporters for the iconic CBS show, “See It Now,” anchored by Edward R. Murrow, descended on Clinton. Only one of the black students making history there was included in an on-camera interview in the hour-long episode devoted to the crisis.
And now Jo Ann is co-author, with me, Debbie Levy, of This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality.
And we, in this post, will honor all that media coverage by proceeding with journalism’s 5 Ws.
(Please forgive us for referring to ourselves in the third person in the paragraphs that follow: It’s not that we think we deserve royal treatment, although being queens for a day would be appreciated. We just think this will make for clearer reading than having us pop up periodically with “Hi, this is Jo Ann speaking!” “Hello, it’s Debbie here!”)
Who (are Jo Ann and Debbie): Jo Ann is a retired pediatric nurse who lives in Los Angeles. In the fall of 1956, Jo Ann was a high school junior in Clinton, Tennessee. After attending grades K-8 at Clinton’s tiny all-African American grammar school—state law prohibited black children from attending school with white children—she rode a bus over 20 miles of bumpy roads to the all-black high school in Knoxville for her freshman and sophomore years. Then the parents of Clinton’s African American children won a court ruling applying Brown v. Board to Clinton High School, and Jo Ann joined with 11 other black students to desegregate the school in her own back yard.
Debbie is a children’s book author, and a former newspaper editor and lawyer. She lives in Maryland. In the fall of 1956, she hadn’t yet been born. And once she was born—like most everyone else, she’d never heard of the Clinton 12 before she started working with Jo Ann.
What (brought the collaboration about) and When (did that happen): Although the Clinton 12 story has largely been lost to history, Jo Ann spent more than 25 years talking about these events to young scholars in schools and churches. Frequently at her presentations, people said: “You should write a book.” It had always been her dream, but seemed too daunting a task.
In February 2015 Jo Ann’s daughter-in-law, Libby Boyce, posted on Facebook about the Clinton 12. “In honor of Black History Month,” Libby wrote, “I want to share my mother-in law and 11 other children’s experience as young students in Clinton TN, who desegregated the first High School in the South. . . .”
One of Libby’s childhood friends saw this. The friend thought, “This could make a great children’s book.” Her thoughts went in that direction naturally, because she was Caryn Wiseman, a children’s book agent, and Debbie’s agent. Caryn got in touch with Libby, who put her in touch with Jo Ann, who said she’d be open to working with one of Caryn’s clients. Jo Ann familiarized herself with the work of several of Caryn’s clients.
When she looked at Debbie’s books, Jo Ann thought “This is who I’d like to work with.”
When the two talked on the phone, Debbie thought, “This is who I’d like to work with.”
Where (did they work): With Jo Ann on the west coast and Debbie on the east coast, they proceeded by long phone calls and emails. Debbie’s early research took her to the Library of Congress; Jo Ann’s took her to the extra bedroom in her home, where she had scrapbooks and folders of materials from those days back in 1956. Debbie got on the phone with some of the participants in the story; Jo Ann telephoned others. And in the spring of 2017, Jo Ann and Debbie met in person when each traveled to Clinton.
And what a trip it was. In between interviewing Clinton 12 members, conducting archival research, and driving around town, they had lunch at Hoskins Drugstore—Hoskins, which wouldn’t serve African Americans when Jo Ann lived in Clinton, and which now carried DVDs of a documentary film about the Clinton 12.
Why (did they write the book in poetry): It wasn’t a casual decision. Jo Ann has always loved poetry, always been musical. Debbie previously had used a free-verse approach in The Year of Goodbyes, about her mother’s experience as a tween in Nazi Germany. That story, and that approach to storytelling, resonated with Jo Ann.
And Jo Ann’s own story, with its shifting cadences, emotions, and immediacy, seemed to demand poetry, free verse as well as metrical forms. From the sinuousness of a villanelle (Chapter 22, “The Night Before”), to a sonnet’s discipline (Chapter 42, “This Time”), to the tightly restrained explosiveness of rap (Chapter 89, “Notes To Myself in the Squad Car”), to the circularity of a pantoum (Chapter 106, “Good-Byes”)—they found that particular forms matched particular action. Debbie and Jo Ann wanted readers to experience the connections between poetry and reality, between the years 1956 and 2019, between Jo Ann’s life and rhythms and their own.
That’s our hope, anyway.
* You can watch the “See It Now” episode on Debbie’s website. There you’ll also find a brief video about the Clinton 12 narrated by Jo Ann’s late grandson, Cameron Boyce—three minutes of excellent, moving storytelling. http://debbielevybooks.com/books/this-promise-of-change-ones-girls-story-in-the-fight-for-school-equality/
Debbie Levy is the author of many books for children and teens, including the New York Times bestseller I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark; Sydney Taylor Notable book The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells; and Imperfect Spiral. She lives in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland. Visit her online at debbielevybooks.com and @debbielevybooks.
Jo Ann Allen Boyce was one of twelve Tennessee students to desegregate Clinton High School in 1956. She also worked as a registered nurse for 41 years, 39 of which were in pediatrics. This Promise of Change is her first book. She lives in Los Angeles.