Bill Garrett Makes History—Again

Bill Garrett, BS'51, was the first Black basketball player to compete regularly in the Big Ten and to play for Indiana University. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

As the first African American basketball player to compete regularly in the Big Ten, Bill Garrett, BS’51, was a trailblazer for Indiana University. Some 70 years later, Garrett, who died in 1974, returns to the forefront of IU’s commitment to racial diversity and social justice as the namesake of the Bloomington campus’s intramural center.

The William Leon Garrett Fieldhouse. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

When Garrett played there from 1949 to 1951, the building was called the Fieldhouse. In 1971, it was renamed the Wildermuth Intramural Center in honor of trustee Ora L. Wildermuth, LLD’52. Following the discovery of letters written by Wildermuth in the 1940s, which revealed his derogatory opinion of African Americans, an effort to rename the building for Garrett began.

In 2018, the IU Board of Trustees voted to remove Wildermuth’s name from the building, and at their June 2020 meeting, they approved a new name—William Leon Garrett Fieldhouse.

Bill Garrett was inducted into the IU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie announced the change as part of a university-wide initiative in response to protests against systemic racism following the death, in May 2020, of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“We must condemn those who shamefully seek to divide us based on race, ethnicity, nationality, political beliefs, and other areas,” McRobbie said in a report to IU trustees. “And we must always stand up for what is right.”

McRobbie said that named buildings on all IU campuses would be reviewed to identify any that honor persons whose known views conflict with the fundamental values of the university.

Garrett led Shelbyville High School to the Indiana boys’ basketball state championship in 1947. African American leaders lobbied IU President Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, to offer Garrett an athletic scholarship, and Wells, in turn, took the idea to Hoosier basketball coach Branch McCracken, BS’30. McCracken agreed, opening the door for IU’s first African American basketball player. When Garrett graduated, he was a first-team All American and IU’s all-time scoring leader.

At the time of his death, Garrett was assistant dean for student services at IUPUI.

This article originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. It is now part of our Black History Month series, IU’s Black History Makers.

Written By
Rod Spaw
Rod Spaw is a retired journalist living in Bloomington, Ind.