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Teresa Fralish | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

When Bill Hurd enrolled at Notre Dame in the fall of 1965, he entered a world far different from his Memphis, Tenn. hometown. “I was one of few African-American students. Having come from an all-black high-school, … it was a little different,” he said. The class of 1968 included only about eight black students – and no more than 20 in the entire student body. But after visiting the campus his senior year in high school, Hurd decided Notre Dame offered a special blend of academic excellence and athletic tradition that couldn’t be found anywhere else. “I choose Notre Dame over Southern Cal, West Point and MIT. I wanted to do both academics and athletics,” Hurd said.But Hurd soon realized the University was far from the ideal educational environment; he was the only black student in most of his classes. He and the other black students banded together to form the African-American Student Union, despite opposition from the University administration. “We needed to fight just to exist,'” Hurd said. “But we needed to be together.”Once granted recognition, the group served as a support network for students and helped generate ideas about how to improve diversity at Notre Dame. And while large disruptive demonstrations over civil rights and the Vietnam War characterized many college campuses in the late 1960s, Notre Dame was calmer. “They weren’t any real protests – people protested in their own way,” Hurd said. “We let our discontent be known on a number of issues, such as the lack of African-American faculty.”When Notre Dame invited Sen. Strom Thurmond, well known at the time for his anti-civil rights views, to speak on campus, members of the African-American Student Union decided to express their views about Thurmond’s speech. “We all got together before the talk, and right before he went to speak we all got up and left,” Hurd said.During his years at the University, Hurd was named an All-American and Notre Dame’s 1968 Athlete of the Year, and he eventually became captain of the track team. He also witnessed positive changes in attitudes among faculty and students toward black students, and he credits his selection as captain as part of that trend. Though some classmates, including students he’d known in high school, didn’t welcome his presence on campus, Hurd looks back on his student days as mainly enriching; he recalls little outright discrimination.The track team and coaches provided Hurd with a close group of friends who respected his athletic talent and stood by him when others couldn’t see past his skin color. “We had a meet down in Virginia – we traveled on the bus from South Bend, [and] we stopped in a small town on the way there. The owner of the hotel said he didn’t allow black people to stay there,” Hurd said. “I was the only black person on the team. Our coach, Alex Wilson, told him, ‘If he can’t stay here, then we won’t stay here either.'”Overall, Hurd credits Notre Dame’s very first black students for contributing positively not just to the University’s advancement, but to the students’ own development, as well. Hurd hopes to see further changes take place at Notre Dame, but he believes the University has come a long way since the late ’60s.”I think we and Notre Dame both learned a lot,” he said. “Notre Dame has grown through their diversity experiences and so have I.”About 30 years after Hurd left Notre Dame, both his sons returned as students. The youngest, Ryan Hurd, is currently a senior engineering major. His father said he feels thankful for the chance to send his son to the same university he attended, but with a more diverse and accepting face. “I’m very proud of my son,” Bill Hurd said. “Fortunately he doesn’t have to go through the kind of things that I had to go through.” Contact Teresa Fralish at [email protected]