George Taliaferro Celebration of Life

Ruth N. Halls Theatre

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie announced that the plaza outside the north end of Indiana Memorial Stadium will be named the George Taliaferro Plaza in honor of the trailblazing football legend. Photo by Alex Kumar, Indiana University

Good afternoon, and welcome to this celebration of the life and legacy of an exceptional man of enormous talent, courage, and determination, who shattered racial barriers and earned a special place in the annals of our state and its flagship public university, George Taliaferro.

He was a true trailblazer in every sense of the word and an individual of the greatest integrity, whose impact will be forever felt at IU and throughout the Hoosier state.

Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to George’s wife, Vi, to his family and friends, and to the many other individuals whose lives have been touched by this remarkable Indiana legend.

Honoring George Taliaferro

George Taliaferro was born in Gates, Tennessee, and his family moved to northwest Indiana when he was an infant.

As a young boy growing up in Gary in the 1930s, he decided he wanted to become a professional football player, despite the existence of an entrenched color barrier in the sport at the time. He realized that, as a first step in achieving this goal, he would somehow need to acquire a football. So, he and his friends scoured the neighborhood for bottles and cans until they eventually earned enough money to purchase a ball—an early indication of his determination.

He went on to become a standout athlete at Gary Roosevelt High School, where he lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track. At the all-black school, teams were not permitted to play against white schools in contact sports, which meant that the football team had to travel to Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Evansville, and even as far as Tuskegee, Alabama, to compete against teams from black schools. It was, however, a hastily scheduled game against the state’s powerhouse, the undefeated all-white East Chicago Roosevelt team, that brought him to the attention of then IU football coach Bo McMillian and to Indiana University.1

As an IU student, George was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, the only national fraternity to be founded at IU, and one of the nation’s first African American fraternities.

And, of course, he was one of the greatest players in IU football history, known for his “triple threat” abilities. Before his career was finished, he led the Hoosiers in rushing, passing, and punting, and he also played on the defensive side of the ball.

He helped lead the 1945 IU football team to the only undefeated Big Ten championship in Hoosier football history.

He was IU’s first three-time All-American.

As a student-athlete at IU—at a time when segregation was prevalent across our state and nation, and in the face of tremendous obstacles—he fought to integrate the classrooms, cafeterias, movie theaters, and restaurants of Bloomington.

In the spring of 1947, George was doing his student teaching at the University School, which was then located on the IU campus. During his lunch break, he had to run back to his boarding house to eat because no nearby restaurants would serve him because of the color of his skin. Many of you are familiar with the story of the day when, instead of going to his boarding house, he went to see then-IU President Herman Wells, whom he had recently met at a social event. Their conversation that day led to a phone call between President Wells and the manager of The Gables restaurant on Indiana Avenue, with the result that their ban on African American customers was lifted. And so, by standing up for what was right, George was responsible for one of the first major steps in desegregating the restaurants of Bloomington.

The “Jackie Robinson of football,” George went on to become the first African-American player to be drafted by the National Football League, where he was the only player in the history of the league to play seven positions—running back, quarterback, punter, wide receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner and cornerback. And he excelled in all of these positions, earning Pro Bowl honors in three of his six seasons.

When he left IU for professional football, he pledged to his mother that he would not sever ties with the university, but that he would come back to finish his degree, which he did, earning his bachelor's degree in physical education from IU in 1951.

Noteworthy service to higher education and IU

After his football career ended, George continued to be a champion for fairness, compassion and equality. He devoted himself to social work positions in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. After earning a Master’s degree at Howard University, he taught at the University of Maryland and served as dean of students at Morgan State University.

In 1972, IU’s 14th president, John Ryan, asked George to serve as a special assistant to the president. In this role, he was integrally involved in the development of one of IU’s first formal university-wide Affirmative Action plan, a plan that that would help to ensure more equitable treatment of minorities and women and ensure the university’s compliance with new rules of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare. 

As assistant to President Ryan, George also handled a variety of other special assignments, helped to recruit and counsel minority students, and advised the IUPUI Chancellor, and the deans of the IU School of Social Work. He also served as an assistant professor in IU's School of Social Work, and he chaired the Big Ten Advisory Committee, which comprised one black athlete from each conference school.

Announcing the George Taliaferro Plaza

I am very pleased to announce this afternoon, that as a way of honoring George’s many contributions to Indiana University and his enduring legacy, the plaza outside the north end of Indiana Memorial Stadium will be named the George Taliaferro Plaza, effective immediately.

In addition, Indiana University is commissioning a statue of George to be the centerpiece of this plaza.

The prominent plaza, completed in 2009 as part of the renovation of the stadium’s North End Zone, leads into the Student Athlete Development Center, and will thus be a fitting tribute to George’s legacy for the many student athletes and fans who gather in and pass through the plaza on game days and throughout the year, and the statue of George will serve as a memorial to all of George's immense achievements.

As an outstanding athlete, as a champion of racial equality, as an educator and administrator, as a tireless community activist, and as a friend and mentor to many, George Taliaferro made enormous contributions to Indiana University and to Bloomington community.

And Indiana University will be forever grateful.

Source Notes

1. Dawn Knight, Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower, (IU Press, 2007).