Four decades ago, administrators at the Springfield High School in Springfield, Illinois, robbed a 17-year-old Black girl of the title of valedictorian for the class of 1984. Years later, after a documentary shined a spotlight on the misdeed, the school district endeavored to right this great wrong and bestow on her the honor, apologizing for the bigoted slight.
Tracey Meares had worked hard to graduate at the top of her class, earning the number-one academic ranking. Along with boasting rights, typically at her high school, the student with the highest GPA received the title valedictorian. Meares understood that having the best grades meant she would be the first African-American to receive the title.
However, administrators decided that year they would do away with the titles valedictorian and salutatorian and instead honor the top students.
Meares would share the honor with Heather Russell, a white student that Meares’ father, Robert Blackwell, said was being touted around town by the school’s leadership as the school’s top graduating senior.
On Saturday, April 16, after a Hoogland Center for the Arts premiere screening of the documentary “No Title for Tracey,” based on her senior year and the underlined thread of racism that kept the principal and teachers from giving her the title, she was formally recognized as the valedictorian for the class of 1984. However, she says what transpired years ago still hurts her.
“It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad,” Meares said.
Now the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship at Yale College of Law, Meares also reflects on discovering the great lengths white faculty members went to in order to withhold the honor from her. She said one white assistant principal tried to take her files out of the school counselor’s office leading up to graduation.
“I was called to my counselor’s office, and she told me what had happened,” she remembered. “She said she put a lock on the file cabinet to keep anyone from getting in there again and tampering with my school record.”
Her dad said, “(The secretary’s) 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.”
In an earlier interview, when asked why he didn’t make a big deal out of the slight, Blackwell said he wanted to safeguard his daughter from the backlash that might have come.
He said in an interview with the Illinois Times, “How do you protect your children when there’s so much harm that will come based on their race, and only their race?”
The incident tarnished the way she saw the city she was raised in, believing at a young age it was “backwards” and that she wanted to hurry up, leave and never come back.
“There are lots of reasons to have a kind of sour relationship with the city. I come home because I love my parents, my family, and I have really close friends,” she said. “But I’ve always thought that Springfield was backwards. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out … From the time I was 17 years old, I did not even spend a summer in Springfield.”
The documentary, directed by Maria Ansley, photographer and filmmaker for Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, was spearheaded by Meares’ sister, Dr. Nicole Florence, who is also successful, working as a physician in Springfield.
Ansley said Florence got her excited about the concept of the film after the racially charged summer of civil unrest in 2020.
“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,” Ansley said in an interview with USA Today. “It was the first time I had heard it. I was like, ‘This story needs to be told.’ ”
Meares said, “The documentary is important to my sister. I put this whole thing behind me a long time ago,” she continued. “I do think accountability is important. But nothing is going to make me think differently about these people.”
Florence believes the film will help her sister “process” what happened to her, but Meares is not that certain.
“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 said.
During the premiere, Jennifer Gill, the school district’s current superintendent who was also a freshman at the school during the year Meares graduated, shared a presentation with her former schoolmate.
She said she personally went through the records to verify Meares’ rankings and provided documentation about her transcript and files, which the 55-year-old had never seen before.
Upon seeing the compilation of records, Meares said her first reaction was a sense of immense gratification.
She then said about the presentation of her high school life, “It’s also a lot to process. 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),” she explained.
“I had a lot of trepidation about coming back here and meeting my 17-year-old self,” Meares said about the overwhelming experience. “A lot of the emotions I have about this whole incident are emotions I had when I was 17.”
Those emotions were exacerbated when she was finally given the valedictorian title. She realized the school administrators did not only take the title from her but took away from her an entire village of supporters.
“Walking back here is like walking back in time. I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in decades because when I left, I left. But I’m a little sad, too, because this thing which I did not do has kept me from having connections to people. The people who did this to me did that, too,” she said.