Star of IU’s only unbeaten football team. First African American player drafted into the NFL. Champion of IU integration. Beginning with football but finishing far beyond, George Taliaferro, BS’51, found fame through sport and a golden reputation through his work off the field.
Coming from Gary Roosevelt High School, Taliaferro played for the Hoosiers from 1945 to 1948. A three-time All-American, he was a versatile player—excelling as halfback, quarterback, defensive back, and kicker for the Hoosiers—twice leading the team in rushing and once in passing yards. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
He joined the professional ranks in 1949, and went on to become a three-time NFL Pro Bowl selection. Career marks of 2,266 rushing, 1,300 receiving, and 1,633 passing yards along with 37 touchdowns capped his tenure as a star in the NFL.
Football gave way to higher education as Taliaferro earned a master’s degree from Howard University in 1962, went on to teach at Maryland University, and later became dean of students at Morgan State University.
His prowess on the playing field was evident, but he had an even greater impact outside the lines, demolishing barriers long erected to restrict African Americans.
“When I came [to IU], it was extremely difficult,” Taliaferro said in a 2015 interview. As a Black man in 1940s-era Indiana, he couldn’t live in the dorms, swim in the pool, or eat in the commons, he recalled. “I ran into some attitude from some of the players because they came from towns and states and parts of the country that treated African Americans differently.”
But by interacting with his teammates as individuals worthy of dignity and respect, he soon began to lower these interpersonal barriers. Overcoming entrenched social barriers, such as gaining admittance to whites-only restaurants, took some help from friends in high places.
When Taliaferro was a student, he would gaze at the photo of his championship team through the window of the whites-only Gables restaurant. IU President Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, intervened, informing the Gables owner that he’d have their business closed to students if they continued to deny the star athlete entrance.
The owner acquiesced, and from that moment the desegregation of Indiana University began to take root.
Taliaferro, who died Oct. 8, 2018, at the age of 91, finished his working career in Bloomington, serving as special assistant to the president of Indiana University and dean of the School of Social Work. Helping launch the Big Brother Big Sisters in Bloomington, Taliaferro stoked the conscience of the community so that it would care more for students of all colors who needed help.
In a memorial column written for The Herald-Times, Bob Hammel, ’57, underscored how the athlete will remain fixed in our memory.
“Today my own mind sees George … on the 1945 team that [gave] Indiana its best season in history, George in the flame of youth, playing a game—and changing a world.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. It is now part of our Black History Month series, IU’s Black History Makers.