It was 1966 and the civil rights movement was still in full swing. The Southampton School District had a staff of all white teachers, until one African-American woman stepped up and applied for a job at the elementary school as a third grade teacher.
Hortense Spinner Gordon, now 88, was hired that year, becoming the first person of color to work as a teacher in the district and paving the way for others to do the same.
Ms. Gordon said she was nervous on her first day, fearing that parents would yank their kids out of her class because she was black. But she was wrong.
“It was the opposite,” she said. “I think they thought, ‘If they hired her, she must be good.’”
More than 50 years later, the school district will honor Ms. Gordon, along with four other individuals and two sports teams, at its Wall of Distinction ceremony, which recognizes significant contributions to the academic and athletic programs at the high school as well community involvement and excellence in the business world.
When Ms. Gordon was 5 years old, her family moved from McKinney, Virginia, to Southampton in what was called “the great migration,” and she was promptly enrolled in first grade in the Southampton School District. After continuing her education through grade 12, Ms. Gordon, who was an excellent student, went on to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Although she could have accepted scholarships to attend Howard, Ms. Gordon said her father, the Reverend C. Ralph Spinner, would not allow her to take them because he wanted her to earn her education, not have it given to her. In order to help pay the tuition, Rev. Spinner sold off part of land he owned near North Sea Road. His daughter graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in government.
Ms. Gordon got a job in Washington and eventually enrolled, along with her husband, Ted Gordon, in Georgetown University’s Law school program.
According to Ms. Gordon, Georgetown University had been an exclusively white male school for many years but eventually started admitting black males and, eventually, women. Ms. Gordon started at Georgetown the second year women were allowed to enroll.
Mr. Gordon died while they were attending Georgetown, and Ms. Gordon’s studies were cut short. She moved back to Southampton, where she focused on raising her two sons, Ted, now 62, and Tony, now 59.
Ultimately, she decided to go into teaching and applied for the third-grade position at the Southampton School District.
“They didn’t have any black teachers, so they hired me,” she explained.
Over 25 years with the district, Ms. Gordon would teach countless students, making an impact on their lives and showing them the importance of an education that her father had stressed during her own childhood.
When she retired in 1991, students she had taught in third grade asked her to be the commencement speaker at their high school graduation, and she accepted with delight, she said.
Ms. Gordon was also awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Long Island University, and she boasted on Tuesday that thanks to that she can be called Dr. Spinner Gordon.
Looking back, Ms. Gordon said she wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“I liked it all,” she said. “I loved teaching. I miss it.”
Ms. Gordon said that when she learned that she was going to be honored at the Wall of Distinction ceremony on Friday, September 29, she initially declined because she did not think there was anything “distinctive” about her. But her sons both told her it would mean a great deal to them.
“To me, it’s recognition of how hard she worked,” the older Mr. Gordon said with emotion. “A lot of people don’t know how hard she worked to raise two kids and the sacrifices she had to make to provide for us.”
Also being honored on Friday is Private Donald Sherwood Jr., a 1982 graduate of Southampton High School.
Mr. Sherwood joined the U.S. Army and attended basic and advanced training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, before being stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
In July 1983, he was sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, to be trained in specialized warfare. The conditions were harsh, a combination of high temperatures and training that involved smoke grenades and tear gas. Live ammunition was banned, but a Guardsman stole a 40mm parachute flare and gave it to another soldier, who shot it into a truck in which Pvt. Sherwood was riding as a passenger. The flare struck him in the head, and he died five days later.
The remaining honorees include Frank McDermott, who was a high school history teacher for 36 years before retiring in 2008; Alex White, who was a community activist, longtime caddy at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and an ice skating enthusiast who often rounded up local kids to skate on frozen ponds in the winter; and Harry Halsey “Boo” White, a four-sport athlete who was named Long Island’s best athlete in 1928, achieving honors and records in football, basketball, baseball and track.
The 1999 state championship field hockey team, coached by Chris Holden, along with the 1998-99 boys basketball state champion team, coached by Herman Lamison, are the two teams being honored.
The Wall of Distinction ceremony will start at 6 p.m. in the high school auditorium. The event is open to the entire community.