By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
The “legend” label is awarded too casually these days – diminishing the impact of the superlative with each unworthy application. In the case of Gary Roosevelt High School graduate George Taliaferro, the word “legend” falls short.
For starters, when Taliaferro reported to Indiana University in Bloomington on a football scholarship, he couldn’t swim in the pool, live in the dorms or eat in the cafeteria. Blacks were allowed only on weekends to the movies in that bastion of southern Indiana prejudice. They could only sit in the balcony.
Restricted pretty much to going to class and playing football, he wanted to quit and return to Gary and go to work in the mill. His father would have none of it. So after a period of adjustment, Taliaferro learned to be better instead of bitter. He became an All-American, leading I.U. to its first undefeated season (9-0-1) and the Big 10 Championship.
Emboldened by his success and ever defiant, Taliaferro went back to the segregated Princess Theater in Bloomington with ticket money and a screw driver. After entering, he proceeded to the balcony and took down the “colored” sign and sat in the seat of his choice. All these years later, he still has the sign.
He left I.U. to become the first African American player ever drafted in the National Football League, and the only player of any color to play seven positions – running back, quarterback, punter, wide receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner and cornerback. Taliaferro was selected to the Pro Bowl three of his seven years in the NFL.
After a broad range of distinguished professional experiences as an educator, Taliaferro returned to his alma mater as the special assistant to I.U. President John Ryan. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t drink from the water fountain when he landed on campus. He became close to Bobby Knight but the friendship soured with “The General’s” litany of bad behavior. He can’t even remember who he gave his autographed basketball to.
Taliaferro dedicated his life to charitable cases and encouraging the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. His loving wife, Viola, was the first African American judge in southern Indiana. The power couple raised four beautiful children – all I.U. graduates.
Another Gary Roosevelt graduate was the Berry Gordy of the recording industry long before anyone heard of Motown. Vivian Carter was the founder of Vee-Jay Records in 1953. Her stable of stars included the Beatles, John Lee Hooker, the Spaniels, Jerry Butler, The Staple Singers and the Four Seasons.
Vee-Jay rose to the status of most prominent independent record label in the country. Vivian Carter was wealthy beyond her wildest dreams from the mid-50s to the early 1960s, but as a result of bad investments and, frankly, being taken advantage of in the industry, she was virtually broke by 1964.
She returned to her beloved Gary and ran unsuccessfully for Gary City Clerk before accepting a job in the trustee’s office. During the late hours of the night, she returned to her first love – as a DJ at WWCA. After a multitude of illnesses, she died in a Gary nursing home in 1989.
Vivian Carter opened doors for African American record company owners and executives in the U.S. and will forever remain one of the greatest pioneers of the industry.
Taliaferro and Carter were both Roosevelt Panthers – products of the prestigious Black high school constructed during the most segregated era of Gary’s history. Much of the proud tradition of the institution on 25th Avenue in Gary’s midtown district is attributed to the brilliant leadership of H. Theo Tatum as its principal for 20 years.
Harbart Theodore Tatum was known as H. Theo Tatum throughout his life. Tatum was a Gary resident from 1925 and was an administrator in the Gary Public School System for 36 years. He retired in 1961, but did volunteer work in civic and educational affairs until his death June 16, 1983.
Tatum graduated Summa Cum Laude from Wiley College, was a graduate of Columbia University, earned a Master of Arts degree in Educational Administration from Columbia University, as well as completed postgraduate studies at both Columbia University and the University of Chicago.
The fabled Roosevelt principal made certain that Black children were proud, intellectual, self-confident and driven to succeed despite remnants of Jim Crow that permeated cities well north of the Mason-Dixie Line. He laid the foundation for the Black and Gold tradition that spanned generations.
Roosevelt’s crosstown rival high school was Froebel, the home of Frederick Robert Williamson Sr. You may know him better as simply, “The Hammer.” A football and track star in high school and later at Northwestern University, William- son played eight years of professional football before deciding that Hollywood was his ultimate destination.
Parlaying his rugged physique, striking features, “The Hammer” starred in dozens of television and movie roles before venturing into filmmaking. He became a producer and director with a modicum of success with many products that went straight to video. His movie, “Original Gangstas,” was filmed in Gary.
On the BET hit drama, “Being Mary Jane” Williamson last year played the role of the love interest of the star’s philandering mother – ever the cool, cigar-chomping, irreverent Hammer.