Acclaimed blues musician Otis Taylor finally got his high school diploma last month, 57 years after he should have received it.
Back in 1966, the administration at Denver’s Manual High School told Taylor and other students to cut their hair short or they’d be expelled. At the time, he sported a short Afro, although Taylor said it wasn’t just Black students who were targeted.
“Other students in college in Denver did [get asked to cut their hair], like the surfer kids,” Taylor told NPR. “It was sort of like it was the beginning of the counterculture, where The Beatles came out there growing their hair. But the schools [had] a real big counterculture battle with these kids growing their hair.”
Taylor said he was more irritated at being told what to do than about his hair, so he refused. His parents were upset, but he was excited to head to California a little earlier than planned to start making music, he told the Denver Gazette.
Here’s a photo of Taylor now, at age 74, and then, from his official Facebook page.
Taylor would go on to success in the music world, but this would take some time — enough that he also took a detour into being an antiques dealer and the coach of a highly-ranked amateur cycling team along the way. His first album, “Blue Eyed Monster,” wasn’t released until 1996, but he’s known as a musical pioneer who developed the “trance blues” sound.
The reason Taylor is getting his diploma now after all these years is thanks to the keen eyes of a photographer friend, Evan Semon. A few years ago Semon saw Taylor’s picture on display at Manual High School among other famous alumni. He told Taylor, who explained he’d never graduated. Semon got in touch with the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, which eventually decided to rectify the mistake.
Almost 20 states, including Colorado, have put laws into place banning the type of hair discrimination that Taylor faced back in the 1960s.
On May 15, Denver’s school board awarded Taylor his diploma and also gave diplomas to members of the Manual High School Class of 2006 who had to transfer schools before graduating that year due to the school’s sudden closure (it has since reopened).
Taylor wore a graduation cap and participated in a processional to receive his diploma. He later confessed he was embarrassed that the ceremony focused a lot on him.
“And I think there was a woman graduating with a year-and-a-half-year-old little boy in her arms,” he said to NPR. “To me, she must have had to work really hard to get there. I don’t know if I can explain how I felt.”
He told NewsNation that he has been hearing from a lot of others who also faced hair discrimination.
Taylor also had a joking take on getting his high school diploma in a May 17 Facebook post, two days after the ceremony:
“Now that I have a diploma, maybe I can apply to the Berkley School of Music,” he wrote, referring to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Taylor said he has no regrets about not getting his high school diploma before, especially since it didn’t affect his career path.
“The wrong happened a long time ago,” he told CBS News. “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?”