Ottawa

Father of Princeton's 1st black valedictorian reflects on 'major milestone'

Dr. Dexter Johnson, an Ottawa oral surgeon, reflects on his son being the first black valedictorian in Princeton's 274-year history.

‘I didn’t think he’d walk away from Princeton with the prize of prizes’

Princeton University's decision to name Nicholas Johnson its first black valedictorian is a 'major milestone' for both the black community and the world in general, says his Ottawa-based father. (Nicholas Johnson)

When Nicholas Johnson recently called home with some big news, his father wondered what his son could possibly have accomplished now.

Nicholas was already attending Princeton University and doing well — receiving mostly A's and A+'s. 

 "I said, 'What else can you do?'" said Dr. Dexter Johnson, an Ottawa oral surgeon, on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning last week.

The Montreal native then broke the news: he was going to be the first black valedictorian in the Ivy League school's 274-year history.

The announcement caught Dexter Johnson off-guard. 

"I didn't think he'd walk away from Princeton with the prize of prizes," he said. 

Montrealer makes history as Princeton University's first black valedictorian

1 year ago
2:58
We asked Nicholas Johnson what the honour means to him 2:58
 

Widespread recognition

Since the announcement, Nicholas has been congratulated by a number of U.S. public figures, including senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and former first lady Michelle Obama.

His father said it made sense Obama would tweet about Nicholas, as she also attended Princeton — and had to fight against negative stereotypes during her time there. 

The senior Johnson studied at Harvard University, and said he remembered being called an orderly while wearing his lab coat and doing rounds in the hospital. 

"For us this is a major milestone. Not only for black people, but for the world in general," he said.

Beyond advancing his son's career, the announcement also has public relations value at the New Jersey institution, said Johnson, where the first nine presidents owned slaves — and a slave sale was even held on campus. 

'The first one through that door'

Although both Johnsons attended prestigious U.S. schools, the family has humble origins.

Dr. Johnson hails from the Bahamas, and was raised by his grandparents for the first five or six years of his life while his mother worked on another island and sent money back to the family. 

When his son gives his address at graduation — which will be held virtually later this month and followed by an in-person ceremony next spring — Johnson said he'd be thinking about the generations that preceded Nicholas and what their hard work led to.   

While proud of his son, he hopes what Nicholas accomplished will become increasingly normal.

"Nicholas is the first one through that door. We want a parade."

With files from Ottawa Morning.

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