Jo Ann Crozier Allen Boyce
I was born in the small southern town of Clinton in eastern Tennessee, September 15, 1941. My parents were Alice Josephine Hopper Allen who was a native of Oliver Springs, TN and Herbert Allen who was born in Luverne AL. They met after both relocated to Clinton to seek employment. On their meeting, my father was working for a local physician who lived on Eagle Bend Road and my mom was working for the Crenshaw family who lived next door. After a fairly long courtship, they were married in the Crenshaw home in 1938. Following my birth, my sister Mamie Kathleen was born April 28, 1944 and my brother Herbert Howard was born July 6, 1953.
We lived in a small, but lovely home with a large kitchen and two bedrooms on Jarnigan Road. During my early years, we had no inside toilet facilities and I remember the times we had to make the trek to the outside toilet in the cold. Better memories are taking a bath in the big tub in the warmth of the kitchen. I will never forget when we finally had access to the towns’ sewer system and were able to install our inside bathroom. It was pink and, “Oh, so pretty.” My sister and I shared a bedroom. I remember our bedroom because our mom redecorated it just for us girls. There was wallpaper with red Robins on it and a dressing table that had a frilly coverlet surrounding the legs. We thought it was the prettiest room ever. My sister and I had twin beds. I remember when she would have a bad dream; she’d run into our parents’ room and climb in their bed. Eventually, my dad would come and get into my sister’s bed. He snored very loudly and made very funny sounds at which I laughed at until I fell asleep again.
Green McAdoo was my first encounter with an establishment of higher learning. I credit my parents, however, with the initiation of my education. I could read by the age of five and because of that I ended up being started in the first grade. My first teacher was Miss Teresa Blair. Without she and my parents, my formative years of education might not have been so great given that the school for “colored children” was only two rooms with two teachers having to educate eight grades. First through fourth grades were in one room, and fifth through eighth grades in another. We rarely, if ever, had new books but used second hand books from the white elementary school. But given Ms. Blair’s zeal for teaching and my parent’s strong belief in education, I managed to make good grades in almost every subject. Mathematics was my one exception, especially later, when I would take algebra and geometry. My favorite subjects were Reading, Writing, English and Science. I still have my little awards for the books I read.
When I was 12 years old, my little brother was born. My mom was very ill during her pregnancy and we would learn that she had a tumor blocking the baby. First, she had to have a caesarian section and then she had to remain in the hospital to have the tumor removed. I got to stay home from school and help my father with the new baby and help take care of our house. I loved every minute of it, except the crying baby at night. I was happy when my mom came home. I was also happy to have a baby brother. I am told I wasn’t quite as nice when my sister was born. I was three years old and apparently fairly spoiled, since up to her birth, I was the only child/grandchild out of all my mothers’ and fathers’ sisters and brothers. After my sister’s birth I stayed with my maternal grandmother and aunt for a short time “until I cooled down.” While we were growing up, we had a love/hate relationship. Because of our three-year age difference she had a tendency towards telling tattletales especially when it came to my relationship with boys. I liked boys a lot and they liked me, so there were lots of fights with my little sister! I would protect her from anyone or anything that might do her harm on one hand; on the other hand, I was constantly threatening her with bodily harm if she told our parents about me “holding hands” with my “boyfriend.” In retrospect, my sister was, as well, protecting me. At the time, I just didn’t know it. Of course that all changed when she grew up and discovered boys herself. Today, we are a very close sister team; we’re best friends sharing our deepest, scariest secrets and our wildest dreams. With my little bother, our relationship was more the “other mother” role. Because of our age differences I was married with my own child while he was still young. He was my third child and went everywhere with my husband our two sons and me. He became a great baby sitter to his two nephews. Of course, he grew up and there went the baby-sitting. He and I have always been able to communicate with one another and to this day, we can still sometimes talk on the telephone for hours. I doubt if I’m still a mother figure though. He definitely doesn’t always “hear what I’m saying!”
Growing up in a small southern town like Clinton during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, there was little for “colored kids” to do outside of school activities and one’s church. And so, there were the school plays and pageants, assemblies and talent shows with the community coming out in full force to encourage, cajole, egg-on, their children. I don’t ever remember a time that these events weren’t fun. Then there were our churches, Mt. Sinai Baptist and Asbury Methodist always the pillars of the community. I belonged to Mt. Sinai where my father directed the church choir and my mom played the piano. We were a musical family; my sister and I sang duets for church services, during special programs and sometimes when the choir went “on the road” to visit other churches. There was summer Bible Study School, Sunday school, Wednesday night prayer meeting and of course two services to attend every Sunday. I loved it when we traveled on a big Greyhound bus to as far away as Kentucky and into the Smoky Mountains. Going up and down the mountain roads in a big bus was scary but no less thrilling to me. Some of the fondest memories are of the churches’ Friday night fish fries, drinking red soda pop with peanuts with peanuts in the bottom of the bottles and running through the graveyard that same night being chased by some unknown person intent on scaring you to death. Of course, death never occurred but your adrenaline level was sent skyrocketing as you keeled over with laughter. Considering how much there is for today’s children to do and get involved in I think I’m grateful for a more innocent time for I know it sparked my creativity and imagination.
After graduating Green McAdoo Elementary, I rode a school bus with my fellow classmates, to Vine Junior High School in Knoxville that was at least 20 miles from home. I attended the ninth grade there and then from August 1955 to June 1956, my Clinton classmates and I attended Austin High School for our first year of high school education. There were times during those days that we did not make it to school due to inclement weather or some other untoward event. It was a long tiresome trip we had to make because our hometown school was not open to black students. I developed long lasting friendships as a result of my time at both schools. Today, some of my former classmates from Knoxville remain in my life. In 1956, court ordered desegregation of Clinton High School would change the course of my life into a totally new direction.
Funny how some things happen in your life that you can soon forget unless you actively think about them all the time. Many life-altering events have happened to me but two are strangely and indelibly etched in my memories and inexplicably linked because of the date of their occurrences. They both occurred on August 27, only in different year. The first was in 1956 when I along with eleven of my friends and classmates became the first black students to integrate an all white school in the southeastern United States. For me, it would become an unfinished journey. After five months of attending a school that was reasonably calm on the inside but a sea of turmoil and bigotry on the outside and unlike anything any of us had ever experienced, I left the school and Clinton. The hate we, as a group, faced daily when walking to school, while climbing the stairs to enter and on a too frequent basis in the school’s hallways, is much to much to address in this document. I will only say that it was the first most excruciatingly painful event ever to happen to me. As a black child of the south, I was well familiar with bigotry. I “knew my place” even though I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t get bigotry and hatred then; I don’t get it today. So why was it such a painful ordeal? Because, like any human, having anyone dislike you because of the color of your skin, your physical appearance, your religion or any of a hundred other reasons, is a difficult and bitter elixir to swallow. But for children, having hatred slammed in your face en mass is far more traumatic and damaging than all the years of sticking to the rules because you “knew your place.” That time, fortunately, did not change who I was but only strengthened my character and made me a more loving, forgiving person. As my parents had always taught me, I could be whatever I wanted to be and no amount of hatred could be allowed to hold me back or hold me down. But, just as the second most difficult thing that happened to me 44 years later in the form of a right-sided brain attack, the challenges of 1956 were difficult. They required a great deal of courage and fortitude o the parts of the 12 black kids that walked the walk, their parents, the black community and thankfully, finally many of the people of the whole town. My growing took time, hard work and a firm resolve, as did my recovery from the stroke.
In December 1956, at the urging of my mother’s brother Samuel Harper who had lived in California for many years, my family and I packed up and headed West. As I, and most of the “Clinton 12,” prepare to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the historical events of August 27, 1956, I will celebrate 50 years in Los Angeles. I completed high school at Dorsey High School in 1958 after which I attended Los Angeles City Junior College and Nursing school. I graduated in 1963 and began my 40 years plus career in nursing, most of that time being in pediatrics. I knew at the age of 10 years that I wanted to be a nurse. When I helped care for my little brother, I knew I wanted to be a pediatric nurse, although I doubt that I knew the word pediatric at that time. I paid my way through school working part time as a dental assistant.
I was married to my husband Victor E. Boyce on November 1, 1959 at age 18. We met at a very large dance club on the beach in Santa Monica, CA. The music leader was Cal Tjader and my future husband and I danced the Salsa until the lights came up. We’re still dancing today. I have three wonderful children and three superb grandchildren. My eldest is Victor Hillard who lives close by in Van Nuys, CA with wife Elizabeth, children Cameron age 6 and Maya age 4 years. London Gregory is my second born and lives even closer in Los Angeles with fiancé Liliana and son D’mitri and finally my daughter Kamlyn Monique who lives the closest for now. In May, she will move into her new home with fiancé Davon. My immediate family, including my sister Mamie and my now not so little brother Herbert live within easy reach of each other and we maintain a close bond despite the size of the city and its’ logistic challenges. Church remains an integral part of our lives and until recently I sang in the choir and as a soloist just like when I was at “home.”
After moving to Los Angeles, my sister and I teamed up with our cousin Sandra Harper, daughter of our Uncle Sam to form The Debs. We sang on stage and make a couple of records (45’s) that were heard mostly back east. Our then manager was Bumps Blackwell, the manager of singer Sam Cooke. It was as exciting time in our lives. We still wow our friends and family with our incredible ability to harmonize with each other. Our little group disbanded when I took on the marital role. In 1995, I began to sing again. This time solo and instead of R&B, I took on the role of “jazz singer.” I fulfilled a passionate dream of singing on stage in one of the most famous cabarets in Los Angeles, the Cinegrill. My fun career came to an abrupt halt in 2000 after the stroke. Oh, this doesn’t mean I don’t sing anymore. It is a passion I will never give up; a gift I will never take for granted. Someday, I hope to take the stage again. With a bit of hard work, courage and a resolve to never give up, I don’t doubt that I will do just that. Besides singing, I also write poetry and have had several poems published.
After retiring July 2005, I spent a lot of my new free time attending my father Herbert. Sadly, he passed away December 2005. He was my greatest inspiration for living my life always seeing the “glass half-full!” There is much left for me to do. Three grandchildren for now who keep me very busy; it’s time for me to write a new poem, Noble House is calling; I’ve still got tons of books to read and reread (the classics) and Oh Yes, there’s a trip back to Clinton in August! I just can’t wait!