A Colorado school board is righting an over five-decade-long wrong by presenting a 74-year-old man with the long overdue high school diploma he was denied in 1966 strictly because of his hair.
Blues singer Otis Taylor acquired his Manual High School honorary diploma during a Denver Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Monday, May 13.
“Today is a day that we rectify the failures of the past,” Vice President of the Denver School Board, Auon’tai Anderson, said, according to CBS News. “I know what Otis experienced, along with others, will no longer happen in the state of Colorado.”
While Taylor was vitally grateful for the gesture, he felt deep down that the high school-aged him would’ve been more ecstatic and honored than the 74-year-old him.
But it’s not because he wasn’t genuinely grateful, but because 17-year-old Taylor saw his diploma denial as an opportunity rather than a loss — an opportunity to start his blues music career.
“I wish I could tell you some horrible story about how I couldn’t sleep for months after I got kicked out of school,” Taylor told the Denver Gazette. “But I was just like, ‘I’ll go to California!’ It meant that I could go sooner.”
Taylor, at 17 years old, was a unique high school student in the ’60s who dressed in style and rode his unicycle to school while simultaneously playing the banjo.
He also maintained good grades, abstained from alcohol and drugs, and avoided trouble.
Like a typical teenager, he participated in certain trends—particularly a ’60s hairstyle trend, which was prevalent among Black men.
“Back in the ’60s, if you’re Black, you had a James Brown haircut,” Taylor said. “You had volume on the top, but it had to be very close on the sides. I just let my hair grow, so it was a little longer on the sides. I might have had a little scruffy mustache, too.”
Unfortunately, Taylor’s long hair didn’t sit right with a Manual High School administrator, who gave him an ultimatum — cut the hair or face expulsion.
This was before the state enacted laws banning racial hair discrimination.
Taylor couldn’t care less about the expulsion, but the administrator dictating how he should wear his hair ground his breaks.
He explained to the Denver Gazette that he doesn’t believe race played a role in his expulsion because he said “White surfer kids” and anyone with long hair was kicked out.
Teenage Taylor chose to leave school.
Although Taylor was content with his decision, Taylor’s family disapproved.
“My mother was upset,” Taylor said. “My father was upset. My grandmother was upset. Everybody was upset.”
No one was more opposed to his decision than his father, who lived in California.
“You have to understand that my father was born in 1915, and he managed to go to college for a year,” Taylor explained. “Now, for a Black man to go to college in the late ’30s — that was a big deal. So he wasn’t too happy that I didn’t graduate from high school. He was kind of sophisticated, and he didn’t like that I had long hair. He would say to me, ‘You should camouflage yourself. Never let them know who you are.’ That was my father’s philosophy.”
Taylor eventually moved to L.A. to live with his father and become a blues musician. However, his father was sour about his son’s failure to graduate high school. So much so that when Taylor got arrested in L.A. for attempting to enter a bar under 21, his father left him in jail for three days.
But Taylor doesn’t regret his path, and it worked out for him. He owned his first house at 23 and co-founded and coached one of the first African American bicycle racing teams, which ranked fourth in the U.S.
He released several albums, like “When Negroes Walked the Earth,” which landed him a review in Playboy Magazine.
After releasing his breakthrough album, “White African,” Taylor received a W.C. Handy award for Best New Artist Debut.
His 2003 album, “Truth Is Not Fiction,” put him on the list of the New York Times’ Top 10 Albums of the Year.
He received tons of recognition for his work as an artist, musician and songwriter from Downbeat magazine, Rolling Stone and Living Blues Magazine, which awarded him and Etta James “Best Blues Entertainer” for the year.
Taylor wouldn’t change a thing.
“The wrong happened a long time ago,” he shared. “So, being a Black man in America, I’m going to deal with wrongs. My kids went to college. My wife loves me, and we’ve been married for 37 years. How can I regret?”
After receiving his honorary diploma, Taylor took to Facebook to joke, “Now that I have a diploma, maybe I can apply to the Berkley School of Music.”
Taylor got his diploma because, a few years ago, a photographer named Evan Semón saw a photo of the blues singer in a trophy case celebrating past graduates, but Taylor didn’t graduate. Semón brought the matter to Anderson’s attention, and they scheduled the ceremony during the meeting. In April, Anderson announced that, on May 20, they would award honorary degrees to former students impacted by the old school board over 15 years ago.