When he was 17 years old and in his senior year at a Denver high school, Otis Taylor was told to “cut your hair or leave.” So, Taylor left — and became a renowned blues artist. Now, more than half a century later, he finally got his long-awaited diploma.
Taylor, now 74, was born in Chicago and grew up in Denver, Colorado. By the time he got to Manual High School in the ’60s, racial discrimination in public schools was not uncommon and there were no laws preventing officials from making decisions based on his or other Black students’ hair. It wasn’t until recent years that the CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” and bans hairstyle and texture-based discrimination, has made headway in states and in Congress.
At that time, he told CBS News Colorado, he had a “James Brown haircut.”
“You can have all you want on the top, but you had to be clean on the sides,” he said. “The whole school district was coming down on people who didn’t look how they wanted you to look.”
And he wasn’t willing to give up his freedom of style, so when officials gave him the ultimatum, he left, on a mission to “figure out how to do my music.”
“I remember that day thinking, ‘Oh, I’m out of school!'” he recalled.
So he ventured off to California where his dad lived. A few years and a trip to London later, he got a contract with Blue Horizon Records, according to his website. But he soon ended up back in Boulder, where he has been playing music on and off ever since, earning coveted fellowships, awards and dedicated fans.
And last week, he finally got a recognition that’s been lingering just out of reach for decades – his high school diploma.
“Today is a day we rectify the failures of the past,” Auon’tai Anderson, Denver School Board vice president, said at the graduation ceremony. “I know what Otis experienced, along with others, will no longer happen again in the State of Colorado.”
And while getting the diploma was a happy occasion, Taylor told CBS Colorado that his life has been too good to regret or dwell on what happened all those decades ago.
“That wrong happened a long time ago. Being a Black man in America, I’m going to deal with wrongs,” he said. “My kids went to college. My wife loves me, we’ve been married for 37 years. How can I regret?”
So what comes next for Taylor? He offered a hint on his band’s Facebook page.
“Now that I have a diploma, maybe I can apply to the Berkley School of Music [sic].”