A Black woman has been named valedictorian of her Illinois high school 38 years after she was overlooked.
Tracey Meares was 17 when she topped her class at Springfield High School in 1984, setting her up to become the school’s first Black valedictorian, according to The State Journal-Register. That same year, the school opted to instead honor the top-performing students of the year, forgoing the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian titles.
Meares was officially recognized as the valedictorian of her graduating class after a screening of the new documentary No Title for Tracey on Saturday, according to The Guardian and The State Journal-Register.
Meares, who is a professor and legal expert at Yale College of Law, told the Journal-Register that she “had a lot of trepidation about coming back here and meeting my 17-year-old self.”
“My first reaction is that it’s incredibly gratifying, but it’s also a lot to process,” Meares added. “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].”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Jennifer Gill, Superintendent, Springfield Public Schools District 186, said that “honoring” Meares “with this title means so much more.”
“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,” added Gill. “It was an honor to have Tracey here and a privilege to learn from such an accomplished alumna.”
At graduation, Meares and Heather Russell, who was white, were honored as the “top students” of the class, according to the outlet. The valedictorian and salutatorian titles returned eight years later in 1992. “It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17,” Meares told The Guardian. “I remain angry about it today, and sad.”
Gill, who was a freshman at the school when Meares was a senior, delivered a special medal and certificate to Meares following Saturday’s screening per the Journal-Register.
“One way that we can make amends is to call her and give her the name that she deserved. And that is the No. 1 valedictorian spot of the class of 1984,” Gill said, according to the outlet.
Meares’ parents, Robert and Carolyn Blackwell, believe that systemic racism or institutional racism impacted the decision to not name their daughter valedictorian, according to the Journal-Register.
However, Robert told the outlet that officially naming his daughter valedictorian is “an important gesture,” adding “It’s like reconciliation in some way.”
ARTICLE: PAUL MURDOCH
MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE
PHOTO CREDITS: CNN