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Cameron Boyce's Grandmother was Among First Students to Desegregate High School in the South

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

The late Disney star Cameron Boyce's grandmother was part of the first group of black students who desegregated high school in Tennessee. | BY MIKE BATIE

Cameron Boyce portrait by Rena Durham - Hollywood Ancestry by Mike Batie
Image by Rena Durham / Via Instagram @renadurham

Many know Cameron Boyce from Disney's Descendants movie series, where he played the role of Carlos, the son of Cruella de Vil. The modern twist on the children of Disney's classic characters remains a popular sensation for its adventure, comedy, music, and energetic choreography.

Cameron Boyce with the cast of Descendants, including Mitchell Hope
Cameron Boyce (seated center-right) with the cast of Descendants. / Image via Disney

Sadly, Cameron, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy, passed away on 5 July 2019 due to an epileptic seizure, or sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP).

Cameron's Family Tree

Cameron has a diverse and fascinating family tree. On his father's side, he has African American and African Caribbean ancestry. On his mother's side, Cameron is of European Jewish (Ashkenazi) descent, primarily from Hungary, Germany, Lithuania, and Russia.

Cameron Boyce with his family.
Cameron Boyce with his parents and sister. / Image via Libby Boyce's Instagram

His grandmother's family line traces back to the 1830s in Alabama, during the time of slavery in America. Cameron's 4th great grandfather is the earliest in this line that I found to appear in name on census and marriage records, a likely indicator that he was freed at the time of emancipation, and personal records beyond him were likely not kept. Unfortunately, racism even influences genealogy.

Cameron Boyce's line of descent through his grandmother, Jo Ann Allen Boyce. / Photo from Cameron's Instagram; graphic by Mike Batie

Cameron's Grandmother was Part of the 'Clinton 12'

Cameron's grandmother, Jo Ann Crozier Allen, was born in 1941 in Clinton, Tennessee, to her parents Herbert and Alice.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce, grandmother of Cameron Boyce - Hollywood Ancestry
Cameron's grandmother, Jo Ann Allen, during an interview in high school.

Jo Ann lived during a time of racial segregation in the United States. During this time, laws enforced the separation of African American (black) people from white people. Black people were not allowed to share the same facilities and services as white people. Jo Ann was not allowed to attend school with other children in her community. She was forced to go to an all black school 20 miles away from her home, solely because of the color of her skin.

Clinton High School students protest integration
Clinton High School students protest the ruling allowing black students to attend their school. / Author unknown

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. A federal judge ordered Clinton High School in Tennessee to desegregate. Cameron's grandmother Jo Ann was among the first of twelve black students to attend Clinton High School in the fall of 1956. This group is known to history as the 'Clinton 12.'

Clinton 12 walking to school. Jo Ann Allen Boyce on the right side.
The Clinton 12 walking to school. Jo Ann is on the far right side of the image. / Image via Knoxville News Sentinel

On 26 August 1956, Jo Ann and eleven other black students broke the color barrier for high schools in the American South. As they walked into what was until that time an all white school, crowds lined the streets saying awful, racist things, throwing objects, and spitting at them, all in an effort to deter them from entering the school. Said Jo Ann at the time:

I almost cried to go back home because there were so many people, and they looked so mean. They looked like they just wanted to grab us and throw us out. They didn't want us at all. I could just see their hate in their heart.

The twelve students were brave and determined to pursue an education in their own local school with the other children in their community. Each morning on school days they walked together down Broad Street from Foley Hill to Clinton High School.

Jo Ann Allen walking to school with the Clinton 12.
Jo Ann Allen (center in dark dress) walks with her classmates to Clinton High School. / Image via Inside Edition

On 4 December 1956, a white pastor, Paul Turner, of the local Baptist Church, decided to escort the Clinton 12 to school amid the hostile crowds. Upon his return, he was severely beaten by other white people who were angry at him for supporting the black students.

Whites riot in Clinton, Tennessee.
Multiple nights of riots by angry whites ensued in response to the desegregation of Clinton High School. Here they try to overturn a car with black occupants in it. / Image via Know News by Gene Herrick

The small police department in Clinton was overwhelmed by crowds of 2,000 3,000 who were becoming violent in their protest against black children attending school with whites. State troopers and the Tennessee National Guard were called in to help. Owing to the serious danger of the situation, Jo Anne's parents decided to move the family to Los Angeles.

National Guard keeping order in Clinton.
Tennesse National Guard keeping order amid white citizens protesting the integration of Clinton High School. / Image via Knoxville Sentinal News

Early one morning in 1958, Clinton High School was severely damaged by an explosion. It is estimated that up to 100 sticks of dynamite were detonated at the school, obviously as an act of terror against the integration of the school. Because of the early hour of the bombing, no one was injured. Students were bused to another school building until Clinton High was repaired and reopened.

Clinton High School was bombed by angry racists.
Clinton High School after the bombing by racial terrorists. / Image via University of Tennessee Digital Collection

In Los Angeles, Jo Ann graduated from Dorsey High School in 1958. She graduated with a degree in nursing from Los Angeles City College. She fulfilled her life's work as a pediatric nurse until her retirement.

Jo Ann Allen Boyce
Jo Ann Allen Boyce. / Image via SWVA Today

Jo Ann coauthored a book, This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality, which was published in 2019 and details some of her life in Clinton, desegregation, and biographies of some of the other members of the Clinton 12. You can order the book at these links on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Jo Ann Allen coauthored a book about her experience at Clinton High School.
Jo Ann coauthored a book about her experience at Clinton High School. / Image via Bloomsbury

Cameron and his family teamed up with Disney to share this remarkable story of courage and American history in this short tribute:

What an incredible example we have in Cameron Boyce's grandmother. In a few generations the family tree went from fighting for equality to starring in one the Disney Channel's biggest movie franchises. Jo Ann helped make it possible for her grandson to have this opportunity through her courage and bravery in standing up for equality in a time when doing so was dangerous and even life-threatening.

Cameron Boyce with Mitchell Hope in Descendants.
Cameron Boyce (left) with Mitchell Hope during the filming of 'Descendants.' / Image via Twitter

Although Cameron is no longer with us, he leaves behind a great legacy. Of course we have his amazing talent recorded on the big screen that will influence us for many years to come, but there is so much more. During his life, he was involved with several charities, including The Thirst Project, United Way of America, It's On Us, the Lucstrong Foundation, and Wielding Peace. In 2019, The Cameron Boyce Foundation was established through Network for Good to honor his legacy.

Said Cameron:

We all go...what you leave should be bigger than you.

Cameron Boyce with his grandmother, Jo Ann Allen Boyce
Cameron Boyce with his grandmother, Jo Ann Allen Boyce / Image via Disney


About the Author

Family history research has long been a passion of mine since I was a teenager. Having researched my own family tree extensively, I enjoy looking into the family trees of notable people. It gives me a sense of their background and what shaped them and their family into who they are today. To see their roots and where they come from is always inspiring. Being a history geek, I’m often in awe of the historical experiences of their ancestors and how they connect to the present day. I hope to inspire others to research their own family trees and find out where they come from by sharing interesting insights from the family trees of some of my favorite artists and entertainers.

—Mike Batie



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