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Black Valedictorian Recognized 75 Years After Graduation

WTAE Pittsburgh(PITTSBURGH) -- Fannetta Nelson Gordon was finally recognized Thursday 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 – 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.

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."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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