Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce passed away at the age of 20 on July 6, 2019. His family confirmed the tragic news in a statement, saying “It is with a profoundly heavy heart that we report that this morning we lost Cameron. He passed away in his sleep due to a seizure which was a result of an ongoing medical condition for which he was being treated. The world is now undoubtedly without one of its brightest lights, but his spirit will live on through the kindness and compassion of all who knew and loved him.”
Boyce was a star on the rise, known for his film roles as Adam Sandler’s son in Grown Ups and in the Disney Channel Original Movie franchise Descendants. Cameron was not the only famous member of his family; his 77-year-old grandmother, Jo Ann Allen Boyce, was a member of the Clinton 12 and a trailblazer for desegregation in the United States.
In an interview with Dazed, published a few months before his passing, Cameron said that his grandmother was his biggest inspiration. Here’s what you need to know about Jo Ann Boyce:
1. She Was One of the First Black Students to Attend an Integrated Public School in the South
A year before the Little Rock 9 integrated a public school in Arkansas, Jo Ann Boyce and 11 other black students integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee in 1956. Their enrollment into the high school was a direct result of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, which reversed a previous lawsuit to desegregate Clinton High School that had been denied in the early 1950s.
Once they began attending Clinton, the students faced verbal and physical racism from classmates and community members. Of Jo Ann and the Clinton 12’s experience, Cameron told Dazed “She had to be so brave. She had to face death threats, berating and violence just to go to school. She’s a hero – they’re all heroes.”
2. Her Father Moved Their Family to California to Escape the South’s ‘Oppressive Racism’
According to a profile written on Boyce by Mark Ridley-Thomas for Women’s History Month, she moved with her family from Clinton, Tennessee to Los Angeles, California in December 1956. She graduated high school in 1958 at Dorsey High School and attended Los Angeles City College.
In an interview with LACBC, Jo Ann’s son, Victor, said “My mom is from Tennessee. My grandfather decided to move his family to California to escape oppressive racism in the South. There were also much better employment opportunities in Los Angeles at the time. I wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t made that choice. My parents met in L.A.” She and her husband have been married for almost 60 years.
Since Cameron grew up in Los Angeles with his family, it is unsurprising that he started acting professionally when he was only 9 years old.
3. She Is a Retired Registered Nurse, Which Was Her ‘Dream Job’
Boyce received a degree in nursing from Los Angeles City College. With that degree, she first worked as a registered Good Samaritan Hospital helping adults, before earning a job working with a private pediatrician. She held that position for 10 years, then worked as an R.N. at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for 30 years before retiring.
Her career as an RN was clearly important to her; when describing herself in her Twitter bio, she writes “Mom, Nana. Retired Pediatric R.N. Love music, especially jazz; classic literature, collecting.”
4. She Published a Book Entitled ‘This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality’ Earlier This Year
Jo Ann co-authored a book for teens and young adults with Debbie Levy, narrating her experience attending Clinton High School and becoming a historical figure because of it.
Bloomsbury’s description for the book reads “In 1956, one year before federal troops escorted the Little Rock 9 into Central High School, fourteen year old Jo Ann Allen was one of twelve African-American students who broke the color barrier and integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee. At first things went smoothly for the Clinton 12, but then outside agitators interfered, pitting the townspeople against one another. Uneasiness turned into anger, and even the Clinton Twelve themselves wondered if the easier thing to do would be to go back to their old school. Jo Ann–clear-eyed, practical, tolerant, and popular among both black and white students—found herself called on as the spokesperson of the group. But what about just being a regular teen? This is the heartbreaking and relatable story of her four months thrust into the national spotlight and as a trailblazer in history.”
This Promise of Change won the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction.
5. Cameron Made a Short Film for Disney XD Honoring Jo Ann
In 2016, Cameron was a part of Disney XD’s short film series Be Inspired, honoring Black History Month. His contribution to the series was a segment that shared his grandmother’s story as part of the Clinton 12. Cameron, Jo Ann, and Cameron’s parents and sister went back to Clinton and visited the Green McAdoo Cultural Center, which features sculptures of Jo Ann and the 11 other students who made history in Clinton.
In an interview with People Magazine, Cameron said “My Nana stuck up for what she believed in and did something amazing… Things are going to happen in your life and you’re going to face adversity, but if you grow from that and learn from that, you’re a better person because of it.” Of the experience being back in Clinton years later with her family, Jo Ann told People “It was overwhelming. It was emotional… I could go back and remember the days that me and my friends walked down that hill together.”