After 38 years of being overlooked, a Black woman was finally named valedictorian of her Illinois high school.
According to The State Journal-Register, Tracey Meares was 17 when she topped her class at Springfield High School in 1984, paving the way for her to become the school’s first Black valedictorian.
However, that same year, the school chose instead to honor the year’s top performers rather than the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian titles. Due to that change, Meares was declared “top student” – alongside Heather Russell, a white student.
Meares was finally recognized as valedictorian of her graduating class following a screening of the new documentary No Title for Tracey last Saturday, according to The Guardian.
Directed by Illinois filmmaker Maria Ansley, the documentary tells a story of systematic racism in America. Now a legal scholar at Yale College of Law, Meares told the Journal-Register that she “had a lot of trepidation about coming back here and meeting my 17-year-old self.”
“My first reaction is that it’s incredibly gratifying, but it’s also a lot to process,” Meares added. “It’s the metaphor of a dry sponge. When you pour a bunch of water on a dry sponge, it takes a while [to soak it up].”
According to Meares, a white assistant principal was seen removing her file from a cabinet in the school counselor’s office. Her counselor then had to lock the cabinet “to keep anyone from getting in there again and tampering with my school record,” she told The Illinois Times.
At graduation, Meares and Russell were honored as the “top students” of the class, according to the outlet. The valedictorian and salutatorian titles didn’t return until eight years later, in 1992. “It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17,” Meares told The Guardian. “I remain angry about it today and sad.”
Jennifer Gill, Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools District 186, delivered a special medal and certificate to Meares following the documetary screening as reported by the Journal-Register. “One way that we can make amends is to call her and give her the name that she deserved. And that is the No. 1 valedictorian spot of the class of 1984,” Gill said.
Meares’ parents, Robert and Carolyn Blackwell, believe that systemic racism influenced the school’s decision not to name their daughter valedictorian. However, Robert told the Journal-Register that officially naming his daughter valedictorian is “an important gesture,” adding, “It’s like reconciliation in some way.”