38 Years After Graduation, Black Woman Is Valedictorian

She was snubbed by Illinois high school in 1984
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 25, 2022 12:19 PM CDT

In 1984, Tracey Meares had the highest grade-point average in her class and was on course to become the first Black valedictorian at her Illinois high school. Instead, Springfield High School ditched the titles of "valedictorian" for the top student and "salutatorian" for the second-place student and introduced the title of "top student," which Meares shared with a white student. This month, Meares was finally awarded the title of valedictorian, CNN reports. She says she was "upset and angry" after the snub 38 years ago and believes race was the reason. The high school didn't reintroduce the valedictorian and salutatorian titles until 1992.

Jennifer Gill, superintendent of Springfield School District 186, presented a medal and certificate to Meares after a screening of the documentary No Title for Tracey, the State Journal-Register reports. Gill, who was a freshman at Springfield High School when Meares was a senior, says she dug through old student records to verify Meares' ranking. Meares says months before graduation, a school counselor told her she was the top-ranked student, but strange events started to occur: A white assistant principal was caught removing Meares' file from the counselor's records, and school administrators began the introducing the second-place white student to service clubs as the school's top student, the Illinois Times reports.

Meares—who went on to become the first Black woman granted tenure at Yale Law School—says the experience soured her on her hometown for years. She says the documentary wasn't her idea, but she found it very powerful. The project was spearheaded by Dr. Nicole Florence, who is Meares' sister, and Maria Ansley, a Southern Illinois University photographer. Ansley says when Florence told her about her sister's experience, she decided it was a story that needed to be told. "I'm a white girl who grew up in Lincoln. I was in high school about the same time this happened," Ansley says, per the Times. "When I heard about this my first reaction was, 'I thought this sort of thing stopped happening in the 1960s." (More valedictorian stories.)

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