'A proud moment for Canada': Princeton's first black valedictorian is a Montrealer

People who watched Nicholas Johnson grow up thought he’d accomplish big things. But even his parents didn’t predict that a kid from Montreal would make history quite so quickly—and do it in a different country’s history books.

This month, at 22, Johnson was named the first-ever black valedictorian of Princeton University, inspiring an excited article in the New York Times and other U.S. news outlets, and a raft of praise from well-known Americans.

“This Princeton alum is so proud of you, Nick!” Michelle Obama tweeted on Monday night.

“Congratulations Nicholas Johnson!” tweeted Senator Kamala Harris, a former Montrealer herself. “Keep using your gifts to show the next generation of young Black leaders what’s possible.”

Some people who knew Johnson back home said they were thrilled but not quite sure what to make of the fuss. After all, he was always heading towards valedictorian status somewhere, said the headmaster at his old private school, Selwyn House. 

“His resume is ridiculous,” said the headmaster, Hal Hannaford. “Whenever the kudos come to him, we’re not surprised.” 

But some said the barrier he broke means a lot even in Montreal, including Johnson’s parents, who grew up in the Bahamas and Jamaica and are both doctors. 

The first “10 or 12” presidents of Princeton were slave owners, Johnson’s father, Dexter Johnson, pointed out in an interview with CTV News.

“Finally, a black student coming out on top of the class—it’s quite something,” he said.

He and Johnson’s mother, Anita Brown-Johnson, have always cared deeply that their son understands this bigger history, in Quebec and beyond, he said.

“There’s no point in moving forward if you’re not reaching back to pull some people forward with you.” 

It was natural for Johnson to head to a top school. As a teen, he was incredibly accomplished, said Hannaford, throwing himself into every activity offered: he was a chess champion, had a legendary work ethic, played saxophone and basketball. He was also voted head prefect at his all-boys school.

“He could fit in with the jock group, the arts group,” said Hannaford. “He was a good guy… kind, gentle, humble, didn’t look for the limelight.”

At Princeton, Johnson continued to excel, majoring in financial engineering and operations research, subjects involving complex computer science. He did trips and exchanges in Peru, Hong Kong and the UK, became a member of Engineers Without Borders and worked as a software engineer at Google's California headquarters.

Johnson told the New York Times that he also grew to understand Princeton’s past during his years there.

“I’ve had many critical conversations with classmates on campus about their thoughts on Princetons’ legacy and how it affects their daily life as students,” he told the paper.

Denburk Reid, who used to coach Johnson in basketball, said he first met him when he was a 12-year-old “on a mission,” who was very focused on school, and “paving his own path” there too.

Johnson’s parents became very involved over time in Reid’s foundation, called the Montreal Community Cares Foundation. They have also sponsored a scholarship for many years for black students in Montreal.

“It's not my kid but I just feel so proud to be able to say that I know him and we're part of the journey,” said Reid.

“I know this young man is going to do some serious things, because…he has the mindset and the heart his parents have.”

He’s already agreed to come speak next year to the young players in the basketball program, said Reid.

Brown-Johnson, Johnson’s mother, said that it’s an “ingrained” habit in her family, going back generations, to become involved in the community wherever they are. 

Born in Montreal, she was then raised in Jamaica and moved back to Montreal after high school. She’s now an assistant professor of family medicine at McGill and interim chief of family medicine at the McGill University Health Centre.

Her husband is a dental surgery specialist who owns oral and maxillofacial surgery clinics in the Ottawa area, and has been recently traveling back to the Bahamas, where he was born, to volunteer his time.

Nicholas Johnson was actually born in the Gaspé, said his mother, before being raised in Montreal.

“We’re very proud that it should be a Canadian who goes and breaks that barrier,” she said of her son’s news.

"We think it's a proud moment for Canada as well."

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