A new documentary is shining a light on a shameful piece of Springfield, Illinois’ public school history. In “No Title for Tracey,” filmmaker Maria Ansley tells the story of Tracey Meares, a graduate of Illinois High School’s senior class of 1984. Over 30 years ago as graduation approached, Meares was set to be the class’ valedictorian, and the first Black student to be granted the title. But at the last minute, school officials coincidentally decided to do away with the title, opting to have the high achiever named as “top student”, an honor she had to share with Heather Russell, a white student.
“It was incredibly upsetting when I was 17. I remain angry about it today, and sad,” Meares recalled in the film. She is now a legal scholar at the Yale School of Law. The documentary–directed by Illinois native Ansley—focuses on Meares’ valedictorian snub, and yet, tells a greater tale of systematic racism in America. Meares also recalls being informed that the white assistant principal was caught removing her records from a file cabinet in the school’s office.
“I was called to my counselor’s office, and she told me what had happened,” Meares told the Illinois Times. “She said she put a lock on the file cabinet to keep anyone from getting in there again and tampering with my school record.”
While Meares was made to share the “top student” trophy, she was paraded in front of various service clubs as the top graduating senior. As upsetting as this became for Meares and her family, at the time, her father Robert Blackwell made the decision not drag out the ordeal publicly.
“How do you protect your children when there’s so much harm that will come based on their race, and only their race?” Blackwell later told The Illinois Times. Meares might have been on her way out, but she would leave behind two younger sisters that both Blackwell and his wife feared may struggle against retaliatory efforts if they had gone to the media.
“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.”
The story might date back to the eighties, but its retelling is fresh. Ansley happened to meet Meares’ sister, Nicole Florence on a girls trip in 2021.
“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.”
And tell it, she did. Last week, “No Title for Tracey” made its debut at a public film screening. But the story didn’t end there. Tracey is titleless no more, as she was finally presented as Valedictorian during the event, an award 38 years overdue, but ever so timely.