Cameron Boyce's Grandmother Was Civil Rights Pioneer in the 1950s

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Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce, who died Saturday at age 20, was a loving grandson who idolized his "nana," a civil rights pioneer who helped desegregate an all-white school in the South. 

"When your Nana is a civil rights legend, you tag along to important events where she's recognized and take 8,000 pictures of her," he wrote in a 2018 Instagram post. "She changed the WORLD. I love her and you should too."

Jo Ann Boyce, then Jo Ann Allen, was one of the Clinton 12, a group of African American students who integrated Tennessee's Clinton High School in 1956, a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Only 14 at the time, Boyce became the spokesperson for the group, largely because of her calm demeanor and poised determination.

The students walked to school, notebooks clutched to their chests, under a barrage of insults and racial epithets. Rioting erupted in the town, with cars being overturned and set on fire. The students' lives were threatened and troops from the Tennessee National Guard were called in. A white minister who walked the teens to school one day was viciously beaten.

"She had to face death threats, berating and violence just to go to school," the actor told Dazed in March. He died from a seizure caused by epilepsy, his family said in a statement Wednesday.

"He is a star," his 77-year-old grandmother told WATE-TV in Tennessee after his death. "But he's like a different kind of star. He's a shining star in the sky. We're grateful for everyone who is sending us the love and the support that we need right now. Thank you," she said.

But to Cameron, his grandmother was the real star of the family. 

In celebration of Black History Month, Cameron and his family teamed up with Disney XD to honor their matriarch in a 2016 video tribute. "My nana is part of the Clinton 12," the actor said then. "I've always known she is incredible and now, everyone else will know too."

Her historic journey to Clinton High School occurred one year before federal troops had to escort nine black students to an all-white school in Little Rock.

The violence and chaos that followed prompted her parents to move, taking Jo Ann, her sister and her brother to Los Angeles in December 1956. There, she graduated from Dorsey High School in 1958.

She enrolled at Los Angeles City College and earned a two-year degree in nursing. Later, she attained her "dream job" as a pediatric nurse at Children's Hospital, where she remained until she retired. 

She helped write "This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality," which was published in January. It highlights her life in Clinton, as well as the lives of the other Clinton 12 members.

"I almost cried to go back home, because there so many people and they looked so mean," she said at the time, in a clip that was included in the 2016 video about Clinton that she made with her grandson. "They looked like they wanted to just grab us and throw us out. I could just see the hate in their heart."

But the group walked on. 

"We weren't going to be intimidated by walking down to the school, even though there were days we were very fearful, we continued to walk."

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