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Black professor finally named valedictorian nearly four decades after high school snubbed her

'My first reaction is that it's incredibly gratifying, but it's also a lot to process,' Tracey Meares said.

Black professor finally named valedictorian nearly four decades after high school snubbed her
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/PeopleImages

A Black woman was finally named valedictorian of her Illinois high school nearly four decades after she was snubbed. Tracey Meares, a professor and legal expert at Yale College of Law, was 17 when she topped her class at Springfield High School in 1984. Although she was on track to becoming the school's first Black valedictorian, as graduation neared, school officials opted to forgo the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian titles and instead honor the top-performing students of the year. "Records indicated that given the requirements of the titles of valedictorian and student rank, Tracey had the highest rank in the school and had, therefore, earned the title of valedictorian," Robert Blackwell, Meares' father, told The State Journal-Register.


"It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad," Meares told The Guardian of being denied the honorific. She added that odd events took place in the lead-up to graduation. "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," she said. History finally corrected itself after 38 years last Saturday when Springfield School District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill presented Meares with the valedictorian medal and certificate after the screening of the documentary "No Title for Tracey," a film by Illinois filmmaker Maria Ansley that tells a story of systematic racism in America.


"My first reaction is that it's incredibly gratifying, but it's also a lot to process," Meares said after the presentation. "There are a lot of different things that happened. 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). It was overwhelming (to see this many people here). I had a lot of trepidation about coming back here and meeting my 17-year-old self and a lot of the emotions I have about this whole incident are emotions I had when I was 17."


In a statement to PEOPLE, Gill said that "honoring" Meares with this title means so much more. "We want every student to have a feeling of belonging in all aspects of school and a sense of becoming as they leave our schools with a plan for college and career. It is our responsibility to ensure that our system supports students in reaching their full potential. We have seen that high school experiences can have a profound, lifelong impact," she explained. "It was an honor to have Tracey here and a privilege to learn from such an accomplished alumna."


Many, including Meares' parents, believe systemic racism or institutional racism was behind the snub. "In terms of getting the record straight," said Blackwell, "and making people whole and helping the community understand what the right thing is or was, how do you make things right? What is justice in this situation? I think it's an important gesture. It's like reconciliation in some way." Although they'd made inquiries of the school at the time, they reportedly never got past "the top student" argument. At graduation, Meares and Heather Russell—who was white—were honored as the "top students" of the class. The valedictorian and salutatorian titles did not come back until eight years later in 1992.


"Every one of those students, they all knew Tracey was the top student, so they didn't think about the controversy, about why she wasn't being called valedictorian," he said. "They just knew Tracey was the baddest thing in the whole school. She was valedictorian of this house and several other places." Gill, who was a freshman at the school when Meares was a senior, delivered a special medal and certificate to Meares' following Saturday's screening. "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. In addition to finally being named valedictorian, Meares was also honored by the Southern Illinois University Institute for Plastic Surgery, which announced it had set up the "Tracey Meares Representation Matters" scholarship in her name.

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