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ND marks Black History Month

Julie Bender | Friday, February 4, 2005

With February designated as National Black History month, it is the perfect time to reflect on race issues at Notre Dame, from both a historical and a modern perspective.

The University has made great strides since World War II, when only one black student was enrolled, to the current estimate of a 4.5 percent black population. Yet after 60 years, there is still work to be done.

Hesburgh’s Influence

The University’s crucial role in the civil rights movement was largely due to the influence of University President Emeritus Father Hesburgh.

Hesburgh’s 35-year presidency at Notre Dame began in 1952, just as civil rights issues were beginning to stir in the United States. Beyond his duties as University president, Hesburgh played a significant role advocating civil rights at the national level. In 1957, Hesburgh became a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and served as its chairman from 1969 to 1972. During his 15 years on the commission, Hesburgh oversaw hundreds of hearings and sought to identify problems of civil rights in America.

“I worked alongside President Lyndon Johnson to create laws needed to guarantee black voting, and to administer justice in the areas of education and labor,” Hesburgh said. “We helped to pass the comprehensive Civil Rights Act in 1964.”

The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion and national origin, has come to be known as the most extensive civil rights legislation passed since the post-Civil War Recon-struction era.

Hesburgh credits President Johnson for the passage of this act.

“There is no president before or after who could have had such enormous influence on the House and Senate,” Hesburgh said. “Though there has been progress since 1964, that was the beginning of the emancipation of blacks in America, who had been denied participation in various important aspects of American life up to that point.”

Civil rights at Notre Dame

Hesburgh’s influence on civil rights also affected his own university, Notre Dame, which, like most schools in the country, was facing integration challenges.

“There were no blacks at Notre Dame until World War II, when the Navy sent one black candidate here for training,” Hesburgh said. “That student returned to Notre Dame to complete his degree after the war, and during my presidency, we made many efforts to build up the presence of black men and women students in our student body.”

Hesburgh’s goal of integration was not solely his battle. Students on campus at the time also played a role in opening the community to black students, he said.

“During the difficult days of student revolutions, there were many student cavalcades in order to highlight the need for a minority presence at Notre Dame,” Hesburgh said. “Great progress was made during these days, and also in the days to follow under the fruitful efforts of the current president, Father [Edward] Malloy, during his years in office.”

Progress over the years

Notre Dame has come a long way from its early struggles, many faculty and students pointed out. Journalism, ethics and democracy professor Don Wycliff, a graduate of Notre Dame who currently serves as the public editor of the Chicago Tri-bune, said the University has made great strides since he first arrived on campus in 1965.

“When I first came to Notre Dame, there were nine black students in my class -and that was more black students than were in any other class,” he said. “We felt marooned, even though professors and other students often went out of their way to mentor and befriend. I still give praises to some of my professors – Walter Nicgorski, Edward Goerner, Frank O’Malley, John Kromkowski and others – who went out of their way for me.”

Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, agreed the atmosphere at Notre Dame has improved since she has been here.

“More majority students understand that it is imperative to expand their critical thought process,” she said. “This cannot occur in a homogeneous environment. Like-ness breeds sameness.”

Outlaw pointed out there is a willingness to understand racial issues on campus, which hasn’t always existed.

“The fact that courses taught by professors Richard Pierce, Al[vin] Tillery and others who teach courses addressing ethnicities and perspectives other than Western, have outstanding waiting lists or have had to add additional [teaching assistants], speaks to the students’ respect for their scholarship,” she said.

Senior Marissa Mathews, a resident assistant in Cavanaugh Hall, said she feels even during her four years at Notre Dame, things have changed for the better.

“There is a slightly more diverse student body, and the University is taking substantial steps towards making Notre Dame more diverse than it once was,” Mathews said. “The presence of such groups as Sustained Dialogues, which bring a diverse group of people together to talk about issues such as race, speaks to this change. It may be a small change, but it is a start.”

Improvement slow task

Despite the strides the University has made, diversity issues remain. Current University statistics show minority students make up about 21.5 percent of the 2004 class, 4.5 percent of whom are blacks. These numbers lag behind national data on the U.S. minority population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, approximately 30 percent of the population defined themselves as ethnic minority, with about 12 percent being African-American. Looking at the numbers alone, it is clear that more work needs to be done to create a diversified campus reflective of the national population.

Wycliff suggested race relations at Notre Dame might be better if the University hadn’t fired football coach Tyrone Willingham. Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport at Notre Dame, was fired in late November after his third season. His dismissal came as a shock to a number of students and faculty on campus, and many blacks took his firing as a personal blow.

Looking beyond football, Outlaw said creating more dialogue about understanding race would be one way of achieving the goal of improving race relations on campus.

“It is not enough to attend Blak Images, Black Koffee-house or other ethnic events, although for some this is a monumental starting point,” she said. “The [aforementioned] courses, Sustained Dialogue, Interrace and the Learning to Talk about Race retreats provide an initial forum, but it is up to the University and students to ensure that these conversations continue in the residence halls, dining halls and throughout the campus.”

Mathews agreed with Outlaw.

“More dialogue is needed,” she said, “so people are aware of how minority and majority students feel about diversity at this school and realize how this issue affects our everyday lives.”

Hesburgh said he was confident about the future of racial acceptance at Notre Dame.

“[Notre Dame] is now approaching the goals established so late in its history, and it will, I trust, fulfill the task in the years immediately ahead,” he said. “We are grateful to so many people who have created scholarships for black candidates and are enormously proud of our black graduates and current black students, who are most welcome here.”

Even with such progress, the road to total success is a slow one, said Hesburgh, paraphrasing Robert Frost: “We still have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep, and miles to go before we sleep.”