It was a wrong that needed to be made right!
A Black high school valedictorian has finally been honored 38 years after her graduation, The Guardian reports.
Tracey Meares was a senior in 1984, on her way to becoming Springfield High’s first Black valedictorian. The Illinois native was ecstatic but in the days leading up to graduation, Meares said there were some peculiar events happening. One in particular that she remembers was an assistant principal caught illegally removing her file from a counselor’s office at school.
“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,” said Meares.
The then 17-year-old thought it was odd but didn’t really put two and two together until the unthinkable happened. Just before graduation, the school announced that they would be shifting from their traditional naming of valedictorians and salutatorians, and instead opt to recognize “top students.” On graduation day, instead of being honored properly for her historic accomplishment, Meares was recognized as a “top student,” alongside Heather Russell, a white student. In 1992, Springfield High reverted back to giving honors using the original titles.
“It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad,” Meares explained.
Now, 38 years later, she has finally gotten her just due, Meares being named valedictorian last weekend at a screening of a documentary about her story entitled “No Title for Tracey.” Director Maria Ansley, an Illinois based filmmaker, recalled hearing Meares' story first in 2021 from her sister, Nicole Florence, when Ansley was working as a photographer with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
“With everything that happened with George Floyd, it had us talking about lots of different things. Dr. Florence proceeded to tell us the story about her sister. It was the first time I had heard it. I was like, this story needs to be told,” Ansley told reporters.
Meares’ father, Robert Blackwell, said they all knew it was wrong at the time. He even remembered school faculty introducing Russell to various service clubs as the school’s top graduating senior, despite how hard his daughter had worked to earn the title. Still he chose not to publicize the matter, he and his wife fearing the school might retaliate against their other two daughters. But Springfield’s Black community was well aware of the infamous snub.
“How do you protect your children when there’s so much harm that will come based on their race, and only their race?...It didn’t change our lives. We still had goals that we had always had. And Tracey just kind of flipped that and kept learning, kept achieving, and we didn’t spend time commiserating about the situation,” said Blackwell.
Meares went on to become a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and Yale Law School, where she currently also serves a Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory. She made history at both law schools as the first African American to earn tenure. Despite her accomplishments, “No Title for Tracey,” and her subsequent rightful honor as valedictorian has helped put balm on an old wound. Her sister Florence says the film finally gives her sister a chance “to tell her truth and hopefully…process.” But Meares says that her sister’s involvement all these years later is less about her and more about making sure it never happens again.
“I think she thinks that bringing this to light is going to matter for other people. She’s not doing it for me, per se. That is sort of the point of racial justice: that when people engage in projects like this, they actually aren’t doing it for themselves,” Meares explained.
Congratulations on officially becoming valedictorian Tracey! You’ve earned it!
Photo Courtesy of Maria Ansley/Ben Romang/SIU School of Medicine