In 1984, Tracey Meares was on her way to becoming her Illinois high school’s first Black valedictorian, with the highest academic ranking at Springfield High. Instead, she was declared “top student” – alongside Heather Russell, a white student.
Thirty-eight years later, Meares is valedictorian at last, after she was finally presented with the title last Saturday after a screening of the documentary No Title for Tracey.
Directed by Maria Ansley, an Illinois film-maker, it tells a story of systematic racism in America. For Meares, now a legal scholar at Yale College of Law, the hurt is still fresh. “It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad,” she said.
Meares recalls odd events in the lead-up to graduation. She says a white assistant principal was caught removing her file from a cabinet in the school counselor’s office.
“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,” Meares has said.
Meanwhile, according to Meares’s father, Robert Blackwell, the school’s administrators began introducing Russell to different service clubs as the school’s top graduating senior.
As graduation neared, Springfield High chose to pivot from its tradition of naming valedictorians and salutatorians, and to opt instead for “top students”. Eight years later, in 1992, it resumed using the original titles.
Although the incident was well known among the Black community in Springfield, Blackwell chose not to publicize it. “How do you protect your children when there’s so much harm that will come based on their race, and only their race?” he told the Illinois Times years later.
Blackwell said he and his wife were afraid that if they went public with how the school was discriminating against Meares, school officials might retaliate against their other two daughters.
“It didn’t change our lives. We still had goals that we had always had,” he said. “And Tracey just kind of flipped that and kept learning, kept achieving, and we didn’t spend time commiserating about the situation.”
In 2021, during a weekend trip with Meares’s sister Nicole Florence, a Ansley, who at the time was a photographer with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, heard the story.
“With everything that happened with George Floyd, it had us talking about lots of different things,” Ansley told USA Today. “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.”
To Florence, No Title for Tracey is her sister’s opportunity to tell “her truth and hopefully for her to process” – while to Meares it’s about more than just her.
“I think she thinks that bringing this to light is going to matter for other people,” she said of her sister’s involvement in the documentary. “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.”