Why I love my job …

As you know, I’ve been in the Clinton/Knoxville area for the last week, working on more oral histories—ok, ok, yes, I made a brief trip to Nashville over the weekend, partly because I needed to do an oral history there and mostly because it was a chance to catch up with my folks again. Other than that, though, I’ve been in the Clinton/Knoxville area, and it has reminded me of why I love what I do: I get to meet the most amazing people. Instead of listing them all, I’ll use today as an example of the type of conversations I am forced to have to earn my Ph.D.

 

Today’s work started with a meeting with Jo Ann Crozier Allen Boyce.
Jo Ann Crozier Allen Boyce, who was one of the 12 black studetns to desegregate Clinton High School.
Jo Ann Crozier Allen Boyce, one of the twelve black students who desegregated Clinton High School.
In 1956, Jo Ann was one of the twelve black students who walked down off the Hill into (the formerly all white) Clinton High School, making it the first public school to successfully desegregate following a court order. She remained at Clinton High until December 1956 when the Rev. Paul Turner was beaten for escorting the students through the mob into the school.

Concerned for her safety, her parents moved their family to Los Angeles. There, she graduated from a fully integrated high school, became a registered nurse and eventually became a professional singer as well. She still lives in California, so I had assumed that I would have to do a phone interview with her, but Jo Ann was actually in Tennessee for a family reunion. She agreed to speak with me during her time here.

 

When I walked in, a local newspaper reporter and photographer were leaving, and I had a flashback to the days when I was freelancing for the entertainment magazines and found myself on junkets, hoping to get a band or author to give me a unique quote within my allotted fifteen minutes. “Ah, well,” I thought, “at least she promised you an hour.” Then we started talking … this was no junket. In fact, I’m afraid that our conversation made her late for lunch and me late for my next interview.

 

Each of “the twelve” that I have interviewed thus far have discussed how their experiences during that time made them angry and distrustful. What has been most interesting to me is the stories of how they overcame that anger instead of being buried beneath it. In addition to feeling bitter about the abuse she had taken, Jo Ann also talked about how guilty she felt for leaving her friends who were still going to school at Clinton, and she described how her faith and her family helped to pull her out of that quagmire of anger and guilt.

 

As I sped to Knoxville for my interview with Don and Sue Byerly, I was wondering if I would have the same capacity to forgive people who had mistreated me like that merely because I wanted to go to school.
Sue and Don Byerly, sitting on their back porch
Sue and Don Byerly, sitting on their back porch

Don and Sue sparked much less introspection, but they gave me insight into a different perspective on desegregation. In 1956, the Byerlys were newlyweds who had just moved to Clinton the year before. Sue had accepted a job as a teacher at Clinton High School, and Don was a graduate student at UT Knoxville. We sat on their screened-in back porch looking out over their beautiful back yard and gardens and chatted about what they had seen that year.

When the desegregation began, Sue, of course, had a front row seat on all the action within the school. She talked about how the teachers adapted to the pressures and challenges of that year. Even though Don was driving to and from Knoxville each day, he still got involved and joined the white Home Guard that defended the city’s courthouse.

They had saved articles, pictures and memorabilia from that time. In fact, Don still has his deputy card that made him a member of the Guard. They graciously shared their memories with me, helping me see what that time looked like for a young, white, middle-class couple who had stumbled into the middle of the conflict.

I am often amazed by how open people are willing to be with me, a total stranger, but I learn so much wisdom from these conversations. Yeah, I really love this job.

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