Westinghouse 93-year-old valedictorian seeks justice

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In 1934 Sophia Phillips Nelson became Westinghouse High School’s first Black valedictorian. While her family was elated, the principal at the time was not.

“He said, after me there will never be another—the word was not Negro—valedictorian on his watch,” said the now 93-year-old Nelson. “And two years later, he made sure of that with my kid sister, by having her grade changed. I’m very happy to see this finally being corrected.”

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VALEDICTORIANS VALIDATED—Westinghouse High School’s first Black valedictorian, class of 1934, Sophia Phillips Nelson, 93, poses with alumni association awards and state proclamations honoring her and her sister, Fannetta Nelson Gordon, now recognized as the class of 1936 valedictorian. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Both Nelson and her younger sister Fannetta Nelson Gordon were honored for their accomplishments by the Westinghouse Alumni Association April 7, recognizing Gordon as valedictorian of the class of 1936. Gordon died in 2008, at age 88.

“I believe her spirit is with us,” said Nelson. “And she appreciates this—I won’t say tardy—recognition.”

Nelson, who went on to earn two masters degrees and a doctorate, advocated for years to get Black teachers hired in Pittsburgh—eventually selecting the first five to be hired. She went on to teach at West Virginia State College, serving as chair of the English department for her last 20 years before retiring.

Her “kid sister” as she called Gordon was, in addition to being a solid scholar, an exceptional musician. She went on to serve as pianist for, and toured with the National Negro Opera Company. She played with W.C. Handy and accompanied Leontyne Price during her first performance at Forbes Field.

In 1955, she began teaching English and German in Pittsburgh Public Schools and in 1969, Gov. Raymond P. Shafer appointed her to the state Board of Education.

“Fannetta was the best musician they had at the school,” said Nelson. “That’s why I was dumbfounded that her music teacher would change her grades from As to Bs. He was her favorite teacher.”

That teacher who later taught and played music with Gordon’s nephew, psychologist and musician Nelson Harrison, was so consumed with guilt, the family members said, that he contacted her and planned to apologize and set the record right personally, but he died. With the former principal also deceased, there is no one to “officially” confirm the change.

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.”

Though the district has not officially changed her status, school Director Mark Brentley said he would bring to a vote at the next board meeting, Director Thomas Sumpter, who was also among those attending the ceremony said he would second the motion.

Retired district science teacher Richard Harrison, another nephew, said he was pleased to see his aunts, particularly Gordon, getting their due after so many years.

“It’s long overdue. I just wish it could have happened while she was alive,” he said. “But you get used to being short changed.”

On this day at least, in terms of support and admiration, the sisters were not short changed. Along with the Alumni Association, teachers, former students and Westinghouse grads like Esther Bush and Valerie McDonald Roberts all attended the ceremony for the Nelson sisters.

State Rep. Joseph Preston Jr., himself a “House man” as he put it, drove from Harrisburg with proclamations for both sisters, which he signed just before presenting them to Nelson. Representatives from state Sen. Jim Ferlo’s office and City Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess’ office also presented proclamations.

Echoing her brother, Rozalia Harrison Jordon, said she just wished her aunt had received this recognition when she was still alive.

Attorney Reggie Bridges, president of the alumni association, said,” she was robbed.”

“Clear as day on the transcript, you can see where Mr. McVickers changed the music grade from an ‘A’ to a ‘B,’” he said. “He wanted to make it right, but he died before he could. Today, we are making it right.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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