Top Arkansas Student Denied Sole Valedictorian Honors Because of Race

The student contends that the administration has long made it harder for black students to be recognized for their academic achievements.

By Bryan Gerhart Jul 27, 2011

Kymberly Wimberly’s lowest grade at Arkansas’ McGehee High School was a B, and it only shows up on her transcript once. There were no other students at the school with marks as high as Kymberly’s, but she wasn’t the only one at graduation named valedictorian. Instead, she was forced to share the title and honor with another student whose grade point average was lower than her own. Why? According to supporters, it’s because Kymberly’s skin wasn’t the color McGehee administrators had in mind for their top student.

Wimberly is black, and though she had been informed by a school counselor that hers was the highest G.P.A. in the Class of 2011, the principal decided to name a white student with lower grades co-valedictorian. According to the racial discrimination suit filed against the school, Wimberly’s mother Molly Bratton, who works at McGehee, overheard other administrators talking about the "big mess" that would result from her daughter’s appointment as valedictorian. When Bratton tried to take up the matter with the school’s superintendent, Thomas Gathen, she was denied for not jumping through the correct bureaucratic hoops. Gathen told her that there was nothing he could do until at least a month after the school’s graduation.

According to Wimberly’s lawyer, there is a "pattern and practice of school administrators and personnel treating the African-American students less favorably than the Caucasian ones." The school has a white majority, but not an overwhelming one. Forty six percent of McGehee’s students are black, yet there has not been a black valedictorian in the school district, located southeast of Little Rock, since 1989.

Wimberly took Advanced Placement and other honors courses at McGehee, and even gave birth to her daughter during Junior year, yet she still managed to maintain the school’s highest G.P.A. The 18-year-old, who plans to major in biology at the University of Arkansas this fall, says that school administrators have a practice of discouraging black students from taking honors and AP courses, which, in today’s competitive academic climate, are nearly-required for consideration into many four-year universities. "They tell them, among other things, that the work [is] too hard," she explained.

Kymberly hopes her suit, which is pending federal review, will help the McGehee’s future students avoid the racial treatment she received. "My teachers thought I’d fall flat on my face, but I kept trying to succeed," she said, adding, "This won’t be a repeat at my school."