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Willis O. Tyler: Early Civil Rights Activist, Orator Extraordinaire and IU Graduate

Willis O. Tyler, the son of Isaac and Mary Tyler, members of Monroe County’s black community, was born in Bloomington on July 19, 1880.  His parents lived on East 10th Street in what was at that time known as the “Buck Town” neighborhood.  He attended Bloomington’s public schools including, undoubtedly, the Center School at 6th and Washington, the only Bloomington school designated specifically for black children.

Isaac died the year after Willis was born, and when Willis was only nine, his mother passed away leaving him an orphan.  In spite of this challenging situation, he made his way through high school, and in 1896, at the age of 16, he enrolled at Indiana University where he studied for two years.  Then, in response to a call issued in 1898 for volunteers to fight for Cuba’s freedom, he went to Indianapolis and enlisted in the Indiana Colored Volunteer Infantry where he served as a corporal in the capacity of company clerk.

By 1900, Willis was again living in Bloomington, attending school and working his way through college as a porter at Eagleson’s Barbershop.  He did well in school, and perhaps nothing embodies his level of academic achievement better than that of winning the 1901 annual state oratorical contest of Indiana colleges held in Indianapolis.  He was the only black contestant.  After being announced as the winner, his fellow IU students carried him from the building on their shoulders in triumph

The following year, 1902, Willis obtained his A. B. degree from IU.  This was only seven years after the graduation of Marcellus Neal, IU’s first black graduate.  Willis then went on to graduate from Harvard with a degree in law in 1908.  After briefly practicing law in Illinois, he moved to Los Angeles and became active in the Civil Rights movement and worked closely with the NAACP.  In 1924, at the age of 44, he married Lillian DeVaughn, and the couple resided in LA for the remainder of their lives.

In June 1949, after practicing law in LA for more than 35 years, Willis died.  According to his obituary, he was one of the city’s “pioneer Negro attorneys.”  He was survived by his wife and a half-sister, Emma Drisdom.

Post submitted by Randi Richardson (Library Volunteer)

Comments (2)

  1. Lee Ehman


    Interesting post, Randi! (Learned something new — I always thought Bucktown was on the west side.) Lee

  2. Reply

    According to the Bloomington (IN) Daily Student published November 14, 1907, p. 1., Willis O. Tyler was the best negro student to ever graduate from IU. The article reads as follows: Willis O. Tyler, ’02, will graduate from the Harvard Law School in June with the highest honors ever given a negro student.

    While at Indiana Mr. Tyler won many honors, getting first place in the state oratorical and winning numerous local debates and contests. He went to Harvard four years ago where he became a leader among colored students and wielded influence even among the whites. He took a prominent part in oratory and debating and received flattering press notices from both Boston and New York papers.

    He has received several offers to go on the lecture platform and to teach but he will probably practice law in some large city.

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