For generations, the hard work, intellect and creativity of Black women have been discredited, erased, and appropriated. Already having to work twice as hard to even be recognized in academic spaces, they are pressured to accept what they are given--even when they deserve more. This was certainly true for Tracey Meares, who was supposed to her high school's first Black valedictorian, but was snubbed. Years later, she finally got the official title she earned, but it wasn't easy. This is Meares's story.
Black Woman Finally Named Valedictorian Decades After School Denied Her The Title
Meares was at the top of the class.
At 17, Meares worked tirelessly to be an academic overachiever at her Illinois high school. She thought she was in the process of making history at Springfield High School in 1984 as the school first Black valedictorian. However, she never imagined that she'd have to wait 38 years to finally be given the title she deserved as a teenager.
The school deliberately ensured she didn't get the title as a teen.
There wasn't a doubt, Meares was getting top scores, but having a Black valedictorian wasn't something her school was enthusiastic about. The year she was set to receive the honor, the school decided to ditch the tradition of naming a valedictorian and just recognize all of the top students of the school year. It was a cheap cop-out to exclude a Black student, which is sadly a common path of racism in academic institutions.
A documentary about her story changed everything.
Just like so many trailblazing Black women before her, Meares wasn't about to go down without a fight, even if it took her many years and an entire documentary to get her title. "Not Title For Tracey" was created through the joint collaboration of Dr. Nicole Florence, Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools District 186, Jennifer Gill, Maria Ansley and Meares to illustrate that Meares's story is connected to "systemic racism" and the way Black talent is often diminished. The documentary got enough attention to for Meares to get a special medal and certificate to during a Saturday screening, including her official valedictorian title.
She was finally given the No. 1 valedictorian spot for the class of 1984.
In addition to being honored with the title she always deserved, Meares grew up to be one phenomenal adult. She's a Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and Justice Collaborator that attended Yale Law School. She didn't let the racism she experienced at her high school make her forget her worth or dull her shine. As an educator, she's determined to create more equity and justice in academia and beyond.
The documentary has drawn in supporters.
Sadly, Meares is only one of many Black people that has experienced institutional racism in this way. Others have read about her story and couldn't be more supportive. One woman wrote, "Great step to acknowledge! My vote would be to name the school after her next!" Someone else commented, "This powerful documentary must become a national news story and viewed across America. Tracey, as a professor at the nation’s top law school who worked with Obama, rose above this injustice. However, knowledge of Tracey’s horrific experience with overtly systemic racism should expand far beyond Springfield."
This story is also a reminder to hold schools to a higher standard.
Schools are meant to make everyone feel welcome and give them the opportunity to be rewarded for hard work. Yet, that's often not the case, especially for Black and brown students. Jennifer Gill, Superintendent, Springfield Public Schools District 186, explained that Meares getting the recognition she deserves is about the future of school culture. She said, "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."
Meares is still angry about what happened.
As if being overlooked for her title wasn't bad enough, Meares had to share the "top students" of the class honor with Heather Russell, who was white. It felt like a clear message was being sent: a Black girl couldn't beat a white girl in an academic space. Meares told The Guardian, "It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today." It's hard to imagine giving your all and then getting seriously burned in the process.
Her parents were impacted by this snub, too.
It's hard for most parents to imagine seeing their child work so hard at school (what many parents struggle to get their kids to do) and then seeing them discredited for all of their exceptional work. That's exactly what Meares's parents went through. Robert and Carolyn Blackwell felt that seeing their daughter get the valedictorian title as an adult is a form of important "reconciliation." While there's a long way to go, it was a step in the right direction to see accountability in this case.
We can only wonder how many students like Meares there are out there.
While Meares was able to somewhat right a wrong that was done to her when she was 17, this is a rare case. From institutional racism to appropriation on social media outlets, like TikTok and beyond, Black girls and woman often come last. However, stories like Meares's are powerful reminders that the work for justice on all levels continues.
Let us know what you think of Meares's high school valedictorian snub in the comments and if you believe the documentary is combatting institutional racism.