Tag Archives: Sophia Phillips Nelson

Black valedictorians: the sound of history repeating?

30 Jul

Kymberly Wimberly

Kymberly Wimberly, a 2011 graduate of McGehee Secondary School in Arkansas,  is suing  her school district and its officials, claiming they violated her constitutional right to equal treatment under the law.

According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit claims that a school counselor told Wimberly’s mother in May that the girl had the school’s highest grade point average in the graduating class, but later the mother, who works at the school,  overheard a conversation in which staff said there would be a “big mess” if a black girl stood alone as valedictorian. A white female student was selected to serve as “co-valedictorian,” and both gave speeches at their May 13 graduation.

(According to reports, the school, whose black population is about 46 percent, has had a black valedictorian before, but not since 1989.)

The district’s superintendent, who is black,  told an Arkansas television station that “the second girl took more classes and that a school rule prevents extra course work from penalizing students when calculating grade point averages.”  After they did the math, the superintendent said, the two students’ GPAs were the same.

Sounds like fuzzy math to me, but now it’s in the hands of the court.

Fannetta Nelson Gordon

This tale brings to mind the story of the late Fannetta Nelson Gordon, who in April of this year posthumously received the valedictory recognition she had been denied for 75 years.

Nelson Gordon, who happens to have been the aunt of my oldest friend, Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker, attended Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School and in 1936 would have been the school’s second black valedictorian. Her sister, Sophia Phillips Nelson, now in her 90s, was the school’s first black valedictorian in 1934. According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “the principal said the school would not have another black valedictorian. So, he pressured a music teacher to change her grades.”

Ebenezer Ray, The New York Age, Oct. 31, 1936

Both sisters were honored by the high school’s alumni association this spring, and the story made national news. We all felt good that even though Nelson Gordon did not live to receive the recognition, an injustice had been righted.

But now we have the Wimberly case. ColorofChange.org is encouraging those who find this case troubling to write to school district officials. It’s not just about Wimberly, they say:

“McGehee and other school districts around the country should be encouraging all prepared students to challenge themselves academically. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Last year, Black students made up 15 percent of graduating seniors, but accounted for just 9 percent of students taking AP exams. Black students trail far behind White, Asian and Latino students in terms of participation in AP classes, and educators have a responsibility to provide equal access to and preparation for college-level coursework. Kymberly is the rare example of the student whose family believed she could excel in high-level classes, despite what some adults at school told her and students who look like her.”

And however the lawsuit turns out, Wimberly has already won.

Not only did she take   — and ace  — Advanced Placement and honors courses, earning only one B in her entire high school career, according to reports, she had a baby during her junior year and still excelled. (Which, in addition to race, is likely the other elephant in McGehee’s living room.)

“My teachers thought I’d fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed,” she said.

Congratulations, Kymberly, and as they say, “Keep gettin’ up.”

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