College athletics played an important role in the civil rights movement, and several athletes at Indiana University were central to that transformative era.
In recognition of Black History Month, today we take a look back at three Hoosiers who courageously helped to break down barriers at the professional, conference and Indiana University levels.
Get to know IU legends George Taliaferro, Bill Garrett and George Thompson.
George Taliaferro was born in 1927 in Gates, Tennessee. His family moved to Indiana and Taliaferro was a star athlete in Gary.
He led Indiana University to an undefeated season and its first Big Ten championship in 1945. The multi-position star earned All American honors from 1945-48.
Transitioning from life in Gary to racially segregated Bloomington didn’t come without its challenges, even for a star athlete. Taliaferro was only allowed on campus to attend classes and football practice. When he went to the movies he had to sit in a separate section.
Taliaferro is best known for breaking down barriers at the professional level. Often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of the NFL”, he was the first African-American drafted into the NFL.
After seven seasons in the NFL, Taliaferro returned to Bloomington. Like their father, all four of his children graduated from IU as well.
George Taliaferro passed away in October, 2018. He was honored by the IU football program as the entire team wore his No. 44 on their helmets. The team repeated the act in 2019 after a statue of Taliaferro was placed outside of Memorial Stadium.
Bill Garrett was born in 1929 in Shelbyville, Indiana. Garrett led Shelbyville to the Indiana state championship in 1947, and he was named Mr. Basketball. Shelbyville knocked off Terre Haute Garfield and star center Clyde Lovellette in the state championship game. The gym at Shelbyville is named the William L. Garrett Memorial Gymnasium.
After completing high school Garrett went to Indiana. Prior to his arrival in Bloomington, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” barring non-whites from playing major college basketball, including at school’s from the Big Ten. Garrett and IU chose to break the agreement and he became the first African-American basketball player to play a starring role in the Big Ten conference.
Garrett led the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding each year from 1949 to 1951. Indiana was ranked No. 2 nationally in the 1950-51 season and Garret was named as IU’s most valuable player and he was selected as an All-American.
The Boston Celtics drafted Garrett, making him the third African American ever selected by an NBA team. Due to being called to serve in the US Army, Garrett never played in the NBA. Upon the completion of his service he signed a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing with them for three years.
Garrett taught and coached basketball in Indianapolis at Wood High School and at Crispus Attucks High School, where he led the team to a state championship in 1959. He was assistant dean for student services at IUPUI at the time of his death in 1974.
In 2017, a historical marker in honor of Garrett was unveiled on the IU campus with his family in attendance.
George Thompson was another notable Hoosier trailblazer. A native of Covington, Indiana, Thompson became one of the first documented African-American athletes at Indiana University when he enrolled in 1905. While at IU Thompson was able to set the school record for the 440-yard dash and was a member of the Western Conference championship winning mile relay team.
Starring at IU was not Thompson’s only claim to fame, as he also participated in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis.
He was also athletic director for the 370th Infantry in France in World War I.
Thompson moved to Akron, Ohio in 1919 and spent the remainder of his life there. He was a notable servant of the community and was honored by the city of Akron for 25 years of social service.
George Thompson passed away in 1944.
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