Black woman recognized as valedictorian nearly 40 years after high school snub

Nay Ni Ratn Mak Can Thuk / EyeEm

(SPRINGFIELD, Ill.) — A Black woman was finally named valedictorian at her Illinois high school nearly four decades after her graduation.

Tracey Meares, a law professor at Yale University, was a star student at Springfield High School in Springfield, Illinois. But when she graduated in 1984, she was not awarded the title of valedictorian despite having the highest academic ranking in her class, she said. Her story is now the subject of a new documentary, “No Title for Tracey.”

Meares would have been the first Black female valedictorian in the school’s history, but she was not awarded the title. Instead, the school did away with the valedictorian and salutatorian titles that year and Meares was recognized with a group as “top students.” The school went back to official titles in 1992.

“As a 17-year-old, achieving something like being valedictorian is probably the biggest thing…It was incredibly disappointing,” Meares told “Good Morning America.”

Meares said the snub was “very confusing” at first but she later processed the great lengths the school went to to deny her the title.

“I didn’t talk about it ever…Many of my best friends that I have known since I was an adult have asked me why I never told and I didn’t want to talk about it. It was terrible. It was really hard,” she reflected.

Meares went on to study engineering at the University of Illinois and then attended the University of Chicago Law School.

This year, her sister, Dr. Nicole Florence, a first-time filmmaker, turned Meares’ story into a documentary to spotlight the impact of structural racism.

On April 16, after a screening of the documentary in her hometown, Springfield Public Schools District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill presented Meares with the valedictorian medal — a surprise to Meares.

“I felt some pride and happiness that my parents who are sitting in the front row could see this happening because they were denied that 30 years ago,” Meares said. “I felt sadness that my grandparents weren’t there.”

Gill said she was “happy” to meet Meares and right this wrong.

“When we know better, we do better. By meeting Tracey and hearing about her lived experience, we know that honoring her with this title means so much more,” Gill told “GMA.” “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.”

“It was an honor to have Tracey here and a privilege to learn from such an accomplished alumna,” she added.

The recognition 38 years later is a gesture that Meares says she appreciates.

“Institutionally, there are people who are making an effort to to acknowledge that people are thinking wrong. That was harmful. And it wasn’t harmful, just to me as an individual. It was harmful to the community,” she said. “The thing to take away is for people to understand the ways in which discrimination can operate at a disproportionate rate at a structural level and that its downstream effects are enduring.”

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