By: Ryan Piurek, Assistant Vice President, Presidential Communications and Special Projects
The Indiana University Bicentennial is mourning the passing of Leon Parker Taylor, son of Carrie Parker Taylor, IU’s first female African-American student. Leon passed away on Oct. 25, 2019 at the age of 103.
An obituary for Leon Taylor is available online.
In 2015, IU Archives Director Dina Kellams discovered Carrie Parker Taylor’s extraordinary story after happening upon her name while browsing through an 1898 newspaper. She soon confirmed that Carrie was the first black woman to enroll at IU and that she attended the university for much of 1898.
And that’s where the story might’ve ended if not for a flurry of media attention sparked by Kellams’s initial discovery. That attention helped her uncover more details about the life of this previously unknown IU pioneer, which, in turn, sent her on a search for Carrie Parker Taylor’s family. Ultimately, she found her way to Carrie’s youngest son, Leon, who was then 99 years old and living in southern Michigan.
“When Mr. Taylor called me, I just about fell in love,” Kellams wrote in a blog post about her remarkable discovery. “This man is incredibly sweet, incredibly sharp, and incredibly generous with his time. He talked to me about his mother a bit, said he would look for a picture of her but mainly he wanted to know, ‘How did you find me?!’
Then he told me that because he was retired (I hope so!) and I had worked so hard to find him, he wanted to come to Bloomington to visit me. He would talk with his daughter and get back with me but he definitely wanted to come before winter.”
Prior to his passing, Leon made several trips to Bloomington with his family to walk the campus his mother did so many years ago and to help honor and celebrate her legacy.
Leon saw IU establish the new Carrie Parker Taylor Scholarship, which was awarded to its inaugural recipients in 2016. The scholarship is funded by an endowed gift made by James Wimbush, vice president for the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, and a donation from Indiana Black Expo. As part of the university’s Bicentennial Campaign, IU is matching the annual endowed interest.
Also in 2016, IU Bloomington’s Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center arranged for a public reading of a poem Carrie wrote and that appeared on the front page of the Tulsa Star in 1915.
The following year, Leon was in attendance when IU unveiled its highly anticipated portrait of his mother as part of the “Women of Indiana University” art exhibit at the Indiana Memorial Union in Bloomington. The portrait hangs hang next to the portraits of other influential women who helped shape IU, such as Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economic sciences, and IU’s first female trustee, Nellie Showers Teter.
At the portrait unveiling, Leon, then 100, shared his thoughts on having IU recognize his mother’s legacy in such a permanent way.
“It’s very nice, and it looks just like her,” he said. “It’s so nice to have her honored after all these years.
Memorial contributions in Leon Parker’s memory may be made to the Carrie Parker Scholarship, more information can be found here.