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Musician expelled from school in 1966 for his Afro just got his diploma

Acclaimed blues musician Otis Taylor was given an ultimatum: Cut your hair, or you’ll be kicked out of high school

On May 15, the Denver Public Schools board gave blues musician Otis Taylor an honorary high school diploma 57 years after he was expelled from Manual High School for his hairstyle. (Evan Semón Photography)
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Just a few weeks before Otis Taylor was scheduled to graduate from high school, he was given an ultimatum: Cut your hair, or you’ll be kicked out of school.

He chose the latter.

It was 1966, and as a student at Manual High School in Denver, Taylor — who went on to become an acclaimed blues musician — was instructed by school administrators to keep his hair short and tight to his head. At the time, high schools across the country banned male students of all backgrounds from having long or big hair, with some of the disputes reaching the federal courts.

Black students such as Taylor, who wore an Afro style that was not cropped close to their heads, were told to clip their hair to look “clean on the sides," Taylor said, adding that the hair was required to be “almost to the skin.”

Taylor decided to rebel.

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“I was expelled for not conforming,” said Taylor, now 74. “I did what I wanted to do."

Taylor recalled having good grades and otherwise not getting into trouble. Still, because of his hairstyle — which he described as being a “short Afro” that was only slightly longer than the mandatory short length — he was kicked out of school.

Nearly six decades later, Denver’s public school district overturned its punitive decision to expel Taylor, and the district granted him the diploma he had earned.

“I wanted to make sure we rectified a mistake from the past and commit to doing better,” said Auon’tai Anderson, vice president of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. Anderson presented Taylor’s honorary diploma to him in a ceremony on May 15 at the Denver school board office. “We will own our past mistakes.”

About 14 other students — who missed their graduation from Manual High School in 2006 because of a temporary school closure — were also given honorary diplomas at the ceremony.

Wearing a traditional graduation cap, Taylor walked toward a podium as “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Taylor’s wife of 37 years cheered him from the audience.

“It felt kind of surrealistic,” said Taylor, who has two daughters, ages 33 and 36. “It was nice.”

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Taylor’s story came to the attention of the school board after a friend of his recently visited Manual High School for an event and noticed Taylor’s photograph in a glass case, showcasing awards and other accolades achieved by successful alumni.

Taylor’s friend, Evan Semón — a local photographer — told Taylor about the photo, and was surprised to learn that Taylor had never graduated.

“I’ve always been a big proponent of education,” said Semón. “If I was in the same situation, I would want a bit of closure.”

Semón thought his friend should have the high school diploma that he deserved, so he approached the school board and asked administrators to right a wrong from 57 years ago.

“He’s a good friend, and I’m happy I got to help him because he helped me,” said Semón, explaining that Taylor encouraged him to continue pursuing photography at a point when he was doubting his career.

Semón attended the graduation ceremony, and as Taylor’s name was called, “I was welling up with pride,” he said.

It took several decades for many states and local governments to enact laws prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture and style. In 2019, California passed the “Crown Act,” and 20 states have followed suit with similar legislation, including Colorado.

Despite protective laws in some places, the problem still persists for many Black students across the country who say they are being punished for their hair. In May last year, a Black teen was suspended from a Texas high school for having long hair, and other similar stories have made headlines.

“What they did was wrong,” Taylor said of his experience with school administrators, adding that he’s glad anti-discrimination laws have been passed to protect students from the unfair treatment that he endured.

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While he’s excited to finally have a diploma, Taylor said, he was never resentful about being expelled. Back then, he already had his sights set on becoming a musician, and although his parents were peeved by his unwillingness to follow school rules, Taylor has no regrets about his decision to maintain his Afro.

“There are so many things that happen to Black people that affect your life. You can’t be bitter about all that stuff,” said Taylor, who has recorded 15 albums, including his latest, called “Banjo …

One of Taylor’s most popular songs is “Ten Million Slaves,” which was featured in the 2009 film “Public Enemies.” He is a multi-instrumentalist who plays the guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica, and he also sings. Much of Taylor’s music addresses racism and the realities of living among bigotry.

In some ways, Taylor said, his high school expulsion made him want to work even harder to achieve his goals.

“I’ve always been very driven to prove myself because of things like that,” he said.