Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 44
 
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton


Concerned Citizen: “I am proud and happy that people have become aware of the Princeton Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). It has raised the consciousness of many members of the community.” Nannette Gibson is one of the founders of the Committee, which supports the national organization (LDF) in its endeavor to ensure equal rights to all individuals.

Education and Equal Rights Have Been the Focus of Nannette Gibson’s Life Work

Committed and engaged, Nannette Gibson has worked throughout her adult life to make a difference in people’s lives. Whether through her career in education, specializing in child development, or in her efforts with the Princeton Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) to ensure equal rights for all, Mrs. Gibson has been in the midst of important educational, judicial, and social advances for American society.

Not one to emphasize the importance of her own efforts, she prefers to concentrate on the overall impact of the organization and the work of others. Those who know of her many contributions, however, point out her dedication and motivation. “I have never known anyone so hardworking and loyal to a cause,” says Princeton Committee member and former Princeton resident Judy Schoenstein. “Nannette is always willing to take on any job, and she is so very committed.”

Such dedication and hard work were evidenced early in Mrs. Gibson’s life. Education was a major focus from her youngest years. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, moving to Cleveland, Ohio when she was 12.

Her mother, Dorothy Johnston Binford was professor of mathematics and Dean of Women at Virginia State College, a predominantly African-American college, founded in the late 1800s. Her father, Henry Binford, an engineer at NASA, along with a colleague was the first African-American hired as an engineer by NASA in Cleveland.

Good Student

“My grandmother, Anna Johnston, had been the wife of the President of Virginia State, and education was very much a part of our lives” recalls Mrs. Gibson. “I never knew my grandfather, and my grandmother carried on much of his effort and work.”

Nannette liked school and was a good student, skipping grades (she was six when she started third grade, later entering college at 16). She especially enjoyed math and creative writing.

“One of my first exploratory endeavors was to learn to speak Spanish,” she adds. “A colleague of my mother at Virginia State started a club for children to learn Spanish. I was about nine, and I liked learning another language.”

Nannette also assisted with household chores, in particular helping her grandmother, who lived with the family in Virginia. “My parents, grandmother, and aunts and uncles lived together,” remembers Mrs. Gibson. “I looked up to all of them, and I especially admired my parents. They were always supportive, and I miss them.”

Nannette and her family, including younger brother, Henry, traveled extensively, visiting relatives in New York, Virginia, Philadelphia, and Alabama, and taking vacations to Washington, D.C., among other places.

“We visited the zoo in Washington, which I liked, and also all the monuments, which were not segregated and were open to everyone. I enjoyed seeing them very much.”

School Choir

Nannette liked music, starting piano lessons at the age of seven, and also later singing in the school choir in high school.

In addition, because of her mother’s position at Virginia State, Nannette met many prominent persons who visited the college. Among them were Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, and Marion Anderson, who gave a concert while there.”

When she moved to Cleveland in the 1940s, Nannette was faced with some of the social problems inherent in the society. She is African-American, with very light skin, and her race is not immediately apparent. This has led to confusion on the part of others and difficulties for her. For example, as she explains, “Early in middle school in Cleveland, it was very hard for me when white students, who didn’t realize I was African-American, would tell me that they didn’t want to sit next to an African-American student in the cafeteria or even eat food prepared by African-American cooks.” Despite such encounters, over time, Nannette came to like Cleveland, and had many friends.

After graduating from high school, she chose to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee because of its outstanding music department. She was selected to be part of the prestigious Jubilee Singers, lending her alto to the 15-member choral group.

“We sang a range of music, including classical and spirituals, and we also toured, visiting other colleges and universities,” recalls Mrs. Gibson. “It was an honor to be part of the group, and I greatly enjoyed it.”

Advanced Degree

Although she loved music, she chose to major in English and psychology. “At the time, I wanted to be a writer,” she says, “and I was especially influenced by two of my professors. Dr. Garey was my English advisor, whom I admired so much. She really got me thinking about what I was writing.

“Dr. Roberts was the head of the psychology department, and he was very helpful to me. He thought I should go on to post graduate education to get an advanced degree in psychology, and in particular, in child development.”

Nannette was persuaded, and child development prevailed over a writing career. She obtained a scholarship to the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit, known for its outstanding child development program. It later became part of the University of Michigan, where two and a half years later in the mid-1950s, she earned a Masters degree in child development.

“I liked the university, and I had a lot of friends, including African-Americans,” says Mrs. Gibson. “At that point, I wanted a career in child development, and Michigan had a wonderful placement service. They referred me to many places. I was offered a job in Cleveland, but when they found out I was African-American, they withdrew the offer. My family was still in Cleveland, and this was a big disappointment.”

An even better opportunity came along, however, and she accepted a position in the pediatrics department of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The Big Apple beckoned, and Nannette lived with her aunt and uncle in Harlem.

“I had visited before, my mother had gotten a masters at Columbia, and we knew people in New York,” recalls Mrs. Gibson.

Newly-Married

While in New York, she met Edward Gibson, a medical student at Howard University. After a year-and-a-half courtship, they were married during his senior year at medical school.

Travel lay ahead for the newly-married couple. They moved to Chicago, where Dr. Gibson interned for a year, and then they lived in many parts of the U.S. while he was a flight surgeon in the Air Force.

It was back to New York a few years later, when he resumed his training, now as a resident in anesthesiology at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where he remained for three years.

By now, the Gibsons were parents of three toddlers, Kathleen, Edward, Jr., and Paula, and Mrs. Gibson’s time was filled with her responsibilities as a mother. Change came along again in 1967, when Dr. Gibson was offered a position in the anesthesiology department at Princeton Hospital.

“We’d heard a lot about Princeton, and knew people who were there. We thought it would be a good place to bring up our children, but it was also a learning experience,” recalls Mrs. Gibson. “We were shown houses, which then became unavailable when owners learned we were African-American. This was not a surprise. We had experienced similar discrimination when we looked in northern New Jersey.”

Eventually, the Gibsons succeeded in finding a house, which has been their home for many years in a congenial neighborhood, including people of varied backgrounds.

Wonderful Neighbors

“We have had wonderful neighbors,” says Mrs. Gibson. “It’s been very eclectic — different races, ethnicities, and experiences.”

As her children got older, Mrs. Gibson decided to return to her career in education. “I worked in child development for the state, and was headquartered in Trenton. I was a consultant for programs for young children throughout the state.”

After earning another advanced degree, an Ed.S, from Rutgers, Mrs. Gibson also worked with students with special needs in the East Windsor school system. While there, she met Princeton resident Shirley Satterfield, who recalls the time enthusiastically.

“Nannette and I have known each other since the 1980s, when she was a learning consultant in the East Windsor School district, and I was a guidance counselor at Hightstown High School. I respected Nannette as a dedicated and professional colleague, and in later years, as a caring friend. We are also both board members of LDF, an organization that Nannette has served faithfully for many years.”

Mrs. Gibson also worked with the Project Child program, which was of particular interest to her. “I really enjoyed working with children from infancy on to help identify those with significant special needs at an early age. The sooner they can be helped, the more chance of success.”

Now retired, Mrs. Gibson has many happy memories of her career in education. “I’ve always enjoyed working with children and have met some very interesting families. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing children with various levels of difficulties succeed.”

Many Options

Princeton, too, has been a largely positive experience, she adds. “There’s a lot to enjoy here. Music is very important to me, and I especially enjoy the concerts at McCarter. There are so many activities to take advantage of — or not. So many options that are not available in many communities.

“I think there’s a lot of hype about Princeton, and it can be daunting for some newcomers,” she continues. “It’s still a place that has a stratified society, but one of the things I like is that it does have an increasingly diverse population. I’ve grown to feel very comfortable here. I didn’t at first. But I have lived here long enough now to feel it is home.”

Mrs. Gibson is involved in various organizations, is active at Trinity Church, and also serves on the boards of the Senior Resource Center and the Cross Roads Nursery School.

Writing letters (real as well as virtual!) to friends and relatives is a pleasure, as is reading, and she and her husband enjoy spending as much time as possible with their children and three grandchildren. And if her busy schedule permits, she would travel to Venice and Paris at a moment’s notice.

However, her time and interest, as they have been from her early years in Princeton, have been engaged by LDF and its support group, the Princeton Committee.

Awareness of the need for equal rights for all — not just some — has been important to Mrs. Gibson throughout her adult life, and while in New York she knew people who were members of LDF. When she moved to Princeton, family friends who were involved in the organization suggested that a group might be formed here.

Fund-Raiser

Years earlier, reports Mrs. Gibson, a group of supporters of LDF had held a successful fund-raiser in Princeton, but it had not been repeated in the years that followed. The time seemed right in 1975, when a group of concerned citizens, led by the late Eleanor Delanoy and Mrs. Gibson, met to discuss plans for the Princeton Committee.

In 1976, the first letter asking for contributions for LDF, was sent out by co-chairs Mrs. Delanoy and Mrs. Gibson. A second effort to raise funds took place later that year, and resulted in a considerable profit.

“The mission of the Princeton Committee is to promote the objectives of LDF in the central New Jersey area by providing financial support to LDF, sharing information about it with the larger community and pursuing such other efforts as are deemed appropriate to the organization,” explains Mrs. Gibson, adding that the Committee has also presented programs at Princeton High School to increase awareness of the importance of education.

“The Committee sponsored events at Princeton High School in which faculty from the high school and staff attorneys from the New York office of LDF collaborated on programs relevant to classroom studies in social studies and civics.”

Always underlying the goals of the Princeton Committee is the national LDF organization, which was founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Although initially affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), LDF has been an entirely separate organization since 1957.

LDF’s mission, explains Mrs. Gibson, “is to transform the promise of equality into reality for African-Americans, other minorities, women, the poor, and ultimately all individuals in the areas of education, political participation, economic justice, and criminal justice.”

Many Achievements

During its years of operation, LDF has had many achievements, she adds. “The single-most important event was the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ending segregation of schools.”

Other examples of its efforts to assist a wide range of individuals include the following, says Mrs. Gibson:

• “LDF has awarded almost $19 million in scholarship and fellowship aid to programs for undergraduate study over the years.

• “LDF has responded with legal resources as support for post-Katrina recovery and with advisory services in rebuilding efforts in the Gulf region, particularly New Orleans.

• “LDF has provided legal advice to school districts that are attempting to maintain the goals of integration that were achieved in the landmark Brown v. Board of education decision of 1954.

• “LDF has provided support in criminal justice cases, including a case in Tulia, Texas in which more than 30 African-Americans were freed after being falsely accused of selling drugs.

• “In a case involving environmental concerns, LDF is representing an African-American family in Tennessee whose water was contaminated from chemicals at a nearby plant. White families were notified to move, but this African-American family was not, and is suffering from cancer and other illnesses at this time.”

In addition, continues Mrs. Gibson, “Locally, over the years, the Princeton Committee has reached a broader audience. When we first started, many people had not known about LDF. Princeton has been a good location for the Committee. There have been concerned citizens ready to become involved.”

Initially, the Committee, which has always been integrated, consisted of 22 members. It currently numbers 52, including active and advisory. “The members are from all walks of life, different backgrounds and experiences,” points out Mrs. Gibson, who not only is co-founder, but has served as Chair, and continues to be an active member. She also serves on the national board of LDF.

Special Benefit

Part of the Committee’s fund-raising efforts have focused on an annual Special Benefit, which has drawn numerous celebrities and dignitaries, including journalists, academics, actors, authors, musicians, jurists, and television commentators. Among them have been Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Dr. William G. Bowen, Roger Wilkins, Billy Taylor, and the late Ossie Davis, Bobby Short, James Baldwin, and the Honorable Constance Baker Motley.

Each year, an individual, whose outstanding efforts contributed to the success of the Committee and LDF, is honored. This year’s guest of honor is Mrs. Gibson, a very popular choice by all accounts.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be on one of the LDF committees that Nannette leads.” says Committee member Shirley Satterfield. “I admire Nannette’s direction, attention to detail, patience, and sincere interest in seeing that whatever she undertakes starts with confidence and ends with success.”

Adds Nancy Livingston, another member of the Committee: “Nannette is being honored at this year’s annual reception because we have all been inspired by her unwavering commitment to the goals of LDF on both the local and national levels. Her tireless work in a variety of capacities over many years has contributed immeasurably to the success of the Princeton Committee.”

Mrs. Gibson, while looking forward to this special event, characteristically praises others who have contributed to the Committee’s success. “I appreciate it very much, and I am pleased to be an honoree, but the work accomplished by the Princeton Committee has been done by a whole lot of people. I am just one of many. It’s the value of the organization that is important.”

The fact is, however, one person can make a difference, and as Shirley Satterfield points out, “How special it is that many will now know about a lady who has contributed so much to our society and now receives the recognition that she so rightfully deserves.”

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