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Leveling the Playing Field

One of the ways black students encountered racism in Bloomington in the 1940s was in its eating establishments, many of which illegally refused them service. One undergraduate student was particularly frustrated not to be able to get a quick meal between classes. Although George Taliaferro’s life-sized photo hung inside the Book Nook on Indiana Avenue, the defensive back who had led the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten victory in 1945 had to trek all the way to the west side of town to get fed.

In the spring of 1948, Taliaferro approached President Herman B. Wells in an attempt to remedy the problem. Although the city’s restaurants were officially beyond the university’s scope, President Wells convinced the owner of the Book Nook to allow Taliaferro and his friends to frequent the establishment. Blacks became welcome there; but other restaurants in town were more resistant, threatening a shutdown before agreeing to integrate. In negotiations, Wells called the restaurateurs’ bluff, offering to provide adequate eating facilities on campus for all students in the case of a local restaurant strike. By May 1950, the city’s cafes agreed to comply with the law.

The student-athlete who forced the issue of integration in Bloomington’s restaurants went on to open many more doors for blacks. In 1949, the Gary native gained the distinction of being the first African-American to be drafted into the NFL; although he turned down the offer from the Chicago Bears in order to honor a previous commitment to play for the Los Angeles Dons, a team within the AAFC, a league more inclusive of African-Americans. Eventually playing for the Baltimore Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles, Taliaferro went on to tackle such issues as affirmative action, minority student recruitment and African-American alumni relations as an administrator and professor at IU in the seventies and eighties. Taliaferro was initiated into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981.

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