Person of the Week: A Black Valedictorian Is Recognized 75 Years after Graduation

She was denied top class in rank in 1936 because of her race, family says.

April 08, 2011, 11:38 AM

April 15, 2011 -- Fannetta Nelson Gordon was finally recognized yesterday as the valedictorian of Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh—an honor denied her in 1936 because of her race.

Gordon died three years ago at age 88, but her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, 93, attended the ceremony sponsored by the Westinghouse Alumni Association.

"It was just so emotionally heartfelt to see the 93-year-old woman take the award for her sister," says lawyer Reggie Bridges, head of the alumni group. "The room was in tears."

"I wish Fannetta could have been there," said Phillips Nelson. "She was a brilliant girl and determined."

So determined, her family says, that Gordon overcame the wrong that was done to her when the school principal pressured music teacher Carl McVicker to change Gordon's grade from an A to a B so she wouldn't be first in her class—an honor that her older sister, Sophia, had achieved two years earlier. The principal didn't want two black valedictorians within two years, the family says.

Gordon's nephew, Nelson Harrison of Shadyside, Pa., a musician and clinical psychologist, was later taught by McVicker. "He told me how very much he regretted it," he said of the grade change. "She was a prodigy and gifted concert pianist. For her not to get an A in music didn't make any sense."

Gordon—whose official transcript ranked her fourth in the 155-student class—went on to become the accompanist for the National Negro Opera Company and played at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, she became a high school German and English teacher and later was named by the governor as a senior adviser for English and foreign languages in the state Education Department.

But she never got over being deprived of her rightful status as valedictorian, her family says. "It was one of the most painful episodes of her life," says her niece, Gloria Wofford. "He erased her A and gave her a B because she was black."

Phillips Nelson said she and other students were aware of what had happened at the time. "We knew. Unfortunately, they were principal and music teacher—we were just youngsters."

The reality at the time for African-Americans, she said, was to tolerate injustices: "Just take it."

The recognition ceremony Thursday came about when Bridges reviewed the transcript and other records. "As clear as day you can see where the grades were changed in music," he said. "You can see erasure marks. " Her earlier music grades were all As, he said.

The Pittsburgh School District has not officially recognized Gordon as valedictorian. "It does appear there were erasure marks on the transcript—we can't confirm the back story" because the principal and music teacher are dead, said spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. "What the district does recognize is that Fannetta Nelson Gordon was a high-achieving student."

In the 1930s when the sisters attended the school, Westinghouse High School was about 5 to 10 percent African-American, whereas today the school is 97 percent black. The school—whose famous alumni include supermodel Naomi Sims and jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, the soloist at Sophia's graduation—will become two single-sex academies next year.

"Our school is in trouble," says Bridges. "This is just the kind of thing to remind [today's students]—quit making excuses. If these sisters could do it in the 1930s, you can do it."

"We hope that they will take a lesson from this and not let anything stop them," says Gloria Wofford.

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