High on top of a hill overlooking the small East Tennessee town of Clinton, 12 bronzed statues of high school students stand in front of an old school building. They are symbols of courage and conviction in an age of racial strife.
In August of 1956, 12 black students walked down the hill from this school into an all-white public high school for their first day of classes. This marked the first integration of a public high school in the segregated South.
The groundbreaking event came in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education. The integration of Clinton High School is often overshadowed by what happened in places like Little Rock, Arkansas a year later. The events here made national news at the time, but were mostly “forgotten” until 2006 when a documentary on the “Clinton 12” was released and the Green McAdoo Cultural Center opened its doors.
For the most part, the situation in 1956 remained calm and peaceful. However, outside agitators made a scene and the National Guard tanks eventually rolled across the Clinch River bridge to help keep the situation from turning violent. Today, the story of the Clinton 12 is told in the old Green McAdoo School, the place where these students attended elementary school. Black students in Clinton could not attend high school in the county and had to travel to the nearest public black high school 30 miles away in Knoxville.
When you step inside the museum there are school desks set up in rows. You can take a seat and soak in your surroundings, getting a good idea what it must have been like to go to school there. Continuing through the museum, large displays explain what happened when John Kasper came to Clinton and the trouble he caused. You also learn how the actions of a Baptist Minister and a high school football captain each worked to make the Clinton 12 feel welcome in their new surroundings.
Probably the most moving section focuses on the bombing of the high school (now Clinton Middle School). Luckily, it happened after-hours and no one was injured or killed, but it did force an already stressed student body to have to pack up and move until a new school was built. A historical marker now stands in front of Clinton Middle School, marking the historic events of the time.
The story of the Clinton 12 is also told in a special Disney Channel production made for Black History Month. It features actor Cameron Boyce telling the story of his grandmother, JoAnn Boyce, who was one of the original 12 students.