After 75 years, Westinghouse graduate honored at valedictorian ceremony
Sophia Phillips Nelson, the first African-American valedictorian of Westinghouse High School in 1934, was honored along with her deceased sister, Fannetta Nelson Gordon, by the Westinghouse Alumni Association in a valedictorian recognition ceremony Thursday at the school in Homewood.
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On a Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School transcript from the 1930s, a quote accompanies the picture of Fannetta Nelson Gordon:
"Though she does our gloom dispel, In every study she does excel."
Her high school transcript puts her fourth among 155 graduates in the January class in 1936.
But for decades, her family has believed that Ms. Gordon was robbed of her rightful place as valedictorian, an honor her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, earned two years earlier.
The reason given was that her sister had been the first black valedictorian, and the principal said the school would not have another black valedictorian. So, he pressured a music teacher to change her grades.
Ms. Gordon died in 2008 at the age of 88; Ms. Nelson is now 93.
Both sisters were honored Thursday by the Westinghouse Alumni Association in a valedictorian recognition ceremony attended by family members, school officials, community leaders and current students at Westinghouse High in Homewood.
In addition, the sisters have been honored this week with proclamations or resolutions from the mayor, city council, the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.
"I believe that in spirit, Fannetta is with us and appreciates -- I won't say tardy -- recognition," said Ms. Nelson, who then named teachers she said were asked to change her sister's grades but refused.
The teacher who did change some of Ms. Gordon's grades and the principal who ordered it are deceased.
Ms. Nelson clearly remembers how heartbroken her sister was. "She worked hard, and she had earned it," she said.
Ms. Gordon was particularly talented in music, the subject in which she received three B's.
On her official transcript -- a large yellowed file card in the school office -- there is a line of erasures with no grades inserted on top of them. On the music line, the final three grades are B's, which follow a series of A's and one B.
"It didn't make sense," said her nephew, Nelson Harrison of Shadyside, a musician and a 1959 Westinghouse graduate who saw students treated differently because of race during his time there. "... We were not naive about racism. It wasn't hidden from us. It was in your face."
Mr. Harrison said the teacher who changed his aunt's grade became his teacher at Westinghouse and played in musical groups as an adult with him.
Mr. Harrison said the teacher eventually confessed to him that he had feared for this job and had been pressured to change his aunt's grades. He said he felt remorse and wanted to meet with Ms. Gordon. Ms. Gordon also heard from teachers who told her they had been pressured but resisted.
The music teacher died before he was able to talk with Ms. Gordon.
Reggie Bridges, president of the alumni group and an attorney, said based on his review of the transcripts, yearbooks and multiple interviews, he is convinced that Ms. Gordon's grades were changed.
"We can't ever restore it back where everybody in her class will know it because most of them are dead. At least we can take some truth that we have and make it right," he said.
Ms. Gordon's family recalls how she was a talented pianist who wanted to be a classical concert pianist but was told by a university that it would not accept a black person into that program. Instead, she went to the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1941 and a master's degree in 1960. Her career included teaching German at Pittsburgh Allderdice and a position in the state Department of Education during Gov. Raymond Shafer's administration.
Ms. Nelson also continued to excel, earning a doctorate at Pitt and working as a college English professor and chair of the department at West Virginia State College, now West Virginia State University. Its website calls her a "literary scholar."
Mr. Harrison, who is a 1959 Westinghouse graduate and has three college degrees, said family members have earned more than 50 college degrees from Pitt alone since 1928.
Among those at Thursday's event were school board members Mark Brentley Sr. and Thomas Sumpter, and John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and a former Westinghouse teacher.
The district has not officially changed Ms. Gordon's status, although Mr. Brentley plans to ask the board to do so.
School district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, "We recognize that she was a high performing student, a scholarly student. We're unable to verify the incident or the story that was presented."
Ms. Pugh said Thursday's event shows current students that Westinghouse has a "long history of high-achieving African-American students."
Aveal Revis, a ninth-grader from Homewood, said later that learning about the sisters' achievements "means a lot to me."
"This school isn't bad. We've got to buckle down and get what we need to get to make it in life," he said.
First Published April 8, 2011 12:00 am