Tracey Meares was set to become her Illinois high school’s first Black valedictorian in 1984, having had the highest grades at Springfield high school. Rather, she was denied the title and was declared “top student” at her 1984 graduation alongside a White student called Heather Russell.
After 38 years, she has finally received the honor. Meares was awarded the title of valedictorian on April 16 by the superintendent of Springfield Public Schools District 186 after a screening of the documentary “No Title for Tracey,” which tells her story and racism in the U.S.
55-year-old Meares said she believes her high school snubbed her of the title because she is Black. “It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad,” she said. A well-known cheerleader in high school, Meares recounted that ahead of her graduation, a White assistant principal was found removing her file from a cabinet in the school counselor’s office.
“I was called to my counselor’s office, and she told me what had happened. She said she put a lock on the file cabinet to keep anyone from getting in there again and tampering with my school record,” Meares said in an interview with Illinois Times.
In the years before her graduation, the top student at Springfield was named “valedictorian” and the second student “salutatorian”, however, the school decided to go for “top students” during Meares’ graduation. It went back to the original titles eight years after her graduation.
Meares’s father, Robert Blackwell, wanted to go public with what had happened, but he feared that school authorities might retaliate against his other daughters.
“You understand that this is going to happen in society. What you do is try to manage through these things. It didn’t change our lives. We still had goals that we had always had. The girls had their goals. And Tracey just kind of flipped that and kept learning, kept achieving, and we didn’t spend time commiserating about the situation,” Blackwell told Illinois Times.
Meares is now a professor at Yale Law School. She is the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship there. In 2021, Maria Ansley, an Illinois filmmaker, heard Meares’ story from Meares’s sister Nicole Florence. Ansley knew that it needed to be told.
Meares told CNN that the resonance that the film has had with so many people is incredibly powerful. “The ways structural racism and race discrimination can work are not the kinds of ways that people understand, right? It’s not always really obvious. But it’s still deep. Gestures of reconciliation are important and necessary.”
Ansley also hopes that by telling the story, she can make others “understand and hopefully grow.”