Obituary: Sophia Phillips Nelson / First black valedictorian at Westinghouse High, graduated at 15

Jan. 10, 1918 - Sept. 3, 2013

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Sophia Phillips Nelson, who in 1934 became the first black valedictorian of Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School, was from a family focused on education and racial equality.

Ms. Nelson, 95, of St. Albans, W.Va., died Sept. 3 after a short stay at a nursing home after she broke her wrist. Her death came two years after her late sister was named and honored for being the second black valedictorian at Westinghouse.

For years, Ms. Nelson and her family were concerned that her sister, Fannetta Nelson Gordon, was robbed of her rightful place as the second black valedictorian in 1936. The family maintained a principal who vowed there wouldn't be a second black valedictorian pressured a teacher to change her grade.

Two years ago, Ms. Nelson was present when the Westinghouse Alumni Association had a valedictorian recognition ceremony for Ms. Gordon, who had died in 2008 at the age of 88, and honored Ms. Nelson as well. The school board later made Ms. Gordon the official valedictorian. The sisters also were honored with proclamations or resolutions from the mayor, city council, the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

At the ceremony, Ms. Nelson said, "I believe that in spirit, Fannetta is with us and appreciates -- I won't say tardy -- recognition."

Her niece, Rozalia Jordan, of Highland Park, recalled, "She was in tears half the time. She was just so pleased."

Ms. Nelson was born in Alabama on a 300-acre farm to parents who were both teachers before migrating in 1923 to Pittsburgh, where black teachers weren't finding jobs. Her mom got active in the NAACP, and her father worked at the post office. Her parents home-schooled her at their Brushton home until she entered Westinghouse, graduating at age 15.

She went on to graduate with honors with a degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Pitt to earn a doctorate in English, focusing on the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, after doing graduate work at Atlanta University and the University of Chicago.

Finding hiring discrimination at major universities, Ms. Nelson began her career in the circuit of historically black colleges and universities. She settled in at what is now West Virginia State University where she was the long-time chair of the English Department.

In retirement, she attended conferences nationally and internationally.

She co-authored a book, "The Black Man and the Promise of America," published in 1970.

Her nephew, Nelson Harrison of Shadyside, recalled holiday dinners at which Ms. Nelson was quick to correct any grammatical errors.

"When we were little kids, we knew the difference between 'less' and 'fewer,' You couldn't sit around the dinner table and say anything that was bad English without Sophie correcting you," he said.

She never liked to hear the word "a" pronounced like the letter of the alphabet. She insisted the word be pronounced "ah."

He said, "She was legendary in West Virginia."

He said her students tell him, "We were so afraid of her in English class."

Ms. Nelson was the last surviving of five children.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Homewood.


Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM


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