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From the Archives: Celebrating the Black community at Notre Dame

, , , and | Monday, February 7, 2022

Diane Park | The Observer

Since 1947, the year the first Black student graduated from Notre Dame, the Black community continues to be a vibrant part of campus life. They have faced many adversities, from the effects of Jim Crow that reached the North, to the toll of police brutality, to the daily microaggressions made by classmates and faculty members. Throughout the years, Black students have sought to elevate their experiences and stories in a predominantly white environment.

As Black History Month begins, From the Archives also strives to highlight the stories of the Black experience at Notre Dame, calling attention to the injustices the Black community faces while also celebrating their accomplishments and cultural impact at Notre Dame.


First Black students speak on early stages of integration and persistent struggles

Feb. 23, 2000 | Colleen McCarthy | Researched by Adriana Perez

Frazier Thompson became the first Black student to graduate from Notre Dame 75 years ago, in 1947. He had returned to finish his studies after completing his service in the Navy during World War II.

Despite some of University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s best efforts toward integration after he became executive vice president of the University in 1949, Associate News Editor Colleen McCarthy wrote, few Black people chose to come to Notre Dame.

Black people, Hesburgh said back then, “may not have felt welcome here because they saw it was pretty much all white and that may have affected the number who chose to attend the University.”

“I can see how it would have been kind of a lonely path, and it would require a lot of courage,” he added.

In 2000, The Observer interviewed two people who had displayed that courage a little under 50 years earlier: Clarence Hodges ’55 and Ben Finley ’60.

Hodges, whose home was a 20-minute drive away in Michigan, graduated from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in education. A veteran with a wife and five kids, he had served in the U.S. military from 1940 to 1943, so the G.I. Bill allowed him to receive a college education.

He was one of three Black students on campus at the time, but that didn’t bother him, McCarthy reported.

“Hodges attributed the lack of racism he saw at the University to the Catholic nature of the institution,” she added.

Nonetheless, he would add integration did not mean interactions between Black and white students were common — quite the opposite. But he’d go to the Huddle to play pool with the younger students in hopes of “doing [his] best to integrate the pool tables.”

Ben Finley, a New York City native, was one of 25 Black students on campus in 1956, his first year at the University.

“I was used to being a grain of pepper in a sea of salt,” Finley told McCarthy.

The electrical engineering student said he was called a racial slur for the first time at the University during orientation week. Sitting on one of the docks by the lakes, Finley delivered a punch that landed him and his aggressor in the lake.

“That was the last time that that happened,” he said.

The 25 Black students remained a tight-knit group that would have long post-dinner conversations about everything from race to weekend plans.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Finley said he felt he had to step into the “role of teacher fielding questions from confused white students.”

In 2000, Finley and Hesburgh reflected on Notre Dame’s integration efforts and agreed the University had a long way to go in recruiting Black students and keeping them enrolled.

“In all honesty, Notre Dame has made huge strides in recruitment and while much is yet to be accomplished, the University should be congratulated for its accomplishments,” Finley said.

Cliff Brown: “At the helm” of Notre Dame Football

Sept. 15, 1971 | E.J. Kinkopf | Oct. 11, 1971 | Jim Donaldson | Oct. 18, 1971 | Jim Donaldson | Oct. 26, 1971 | Neil Amdur | Researched by Spencer Kelly

After the 1970-71 season, Notre Dame was searching for a new quarterback. Star signal-caller Joe Theismann moved on to the NFL, leaving big shoes to fill in an already pressure-packed position.

One leading contender was Cliff Brown. The sophomore had undeniable talent with a strong arm and perhaps an even stronger leg — he nailed a 51-yard field goal in the 1971 Blue and Gold Game.

Observer archives, Sept. 15, 1971
After showing remarkable talent on the second team, Cliff Brown became a top contender for starting quarterback.

Brown also showed a tireless work ethic. Instead of going home for the summer, he stayed on campus to train with All-American wide receiver Tom Gatewood.

Earning the starting nod would be an achievement for anyone. But the stakes for Brown were greater: he was vying to be Notre Dame’s first Black starting quarterback.

However, Brown was not concerned with this added implication.

“No, there’s no additional pressures on me because I am Black,” Brown said. “Believe me, there’s enough pressure just coming here and trying to play a top class of football.”

Brown apparently did not meet this “top class” level, as senior Bill Etter was named the starter instead. After Etter led the Irish to a 3-0 start, Brown’s chances of playing seemed slim.

But in game four against Miami, Etter suffered a serious knee injury. Brown was thrust into the game on third down, wholly unprepared. Still wearing kicking cleats, he slipped while stepping back to pass and Notre Dame was forced to punt.

After that inauspicious start, Brown changed into proper cleats and led three successful scoring drives. The defense did the rest of the work, and the Irish won 17-0.

Etter’s knee injury was deemed season-ending. So, in the next game on Saturday, Oct. 16 against North Carolina, Cliff Brown would make his historic start.

Observer archives, Oct. 11, 1971
Cliff Brown took over as quarterback after Bill Etter was injured in the Orange Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes.

Brown was again triumphant. In a run-heavy scheme, Brown threw just 14 times, but had five completions and a touchdown pass. Another defensive shutout powered a 16-0 Irish victory.

After the game, head coach Ara Parseghian praised Brown’s performance.

“I think Brown did a very good job at quarterback,” Parseghian said. “Based on his play today, I would say that Brown will start again.”

Brown would indeed remain the starter for the rest of the 1971 season, finishing with an 8-2 record.

However, Brown would lose his job next year to Tom Clements. Brown played sparingly over his final two seasons as Clements led Notre Dame to a national championship in 1973.

Still, Brown’s accomplishment in 1971 remains significant. At the time, Black players were marginalized from football in general, but particularly from the quarterback position. Brown broke that barrier in a big way by starting in such a prominent program.

In a 1971 New York Times profile republished in The Observer, Brown already recognized his place in history.

“For so long the Black athlete was thought of as ‘give him the football and let him run–he can’t think,” Brown said. “I think a lot a Black athletes probably haven’t come to Notre Dame because people have told them they wouldn’t have a chance. My being first string should convince them that a Black man can play at the helm anywhere if he’s good enough.”

Students advocate for bettering of Black experience at Notre Dame

Feb. 25, 1986 | Marin Rogers | Lester Flemons | Researched by Evan McKenna

Before there was Walk the Walk Week at Notre Dame, there was Minority Awareness Week. For a number of years in the mid-1980s, Minority Awareness Week sought to promote efforts toward diversity and to recognize the issues affecting students of color on the University’s campus.

And just as Walk the Walk Week sparks a yearly campus dialogue surrounding issues of diversity and inclusion, 1986’s Minority Awareness Week brought with it a campus-wide conversation about improving the Black student experience at Notre Dame — with a portion of said conservation occurring in The Observer’s Viewpoint section. 

On Feb. 25, 1986, in the wake of that year’s Minority Awareness Week, guest columnist Marin Rogers briefly commended the week’s efforts. In the spirit of raising awareness, Rogers chose to highlight an event from the previous year “that for one reason or another was overlooked.”

It all began on Oct. 10, 1985, Rogers wrote, with the formation of a Notre Dame mini-senate made up of approximately 20 Black alumni. Led by then-University President Fr. Hesburgh, the mini-senate was created at the request of the Notre Dame Alumni Association to discuss “the problems facing minority students at Notre Dame, the role of Black alumni in the Alumni Association and how to attract more Black students and faculty to Notre Dame.”

Observer archives, Feb. 25, 1986

After engaging in conversation with countless figures and leaders across campus, the Black alumni of the mini-senate wrote and presented a report, titled “Imperatives and Recommendations,” to Hesburgh and the Alumni Association. After being endorsed by the Alumni Association, the report was to be presented to the University’s Board of Trustees for consideration. 

The recommendations of the report varied widely, but all shared a goal of improving the Black student experience at Notre Dame: implementing a pre-orientation for Black students, bolstering admission and financial aid programs for Black students and formalizing a sub-committee of Black alumni to assist the University in diversity-related efforts. 

And the fight for inclusion continues to this day. In recent years, student movements such as End Hate at ND have advocated for many of the same policies, bringing the fight for such initiatives into its fifth decade. Just this year, the University’s newly formed Trustee Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion seeks to rectify many of the issues discussed by the mini-senate way back in 1986.

But progress never comes all at once, and the fight for inclusion may never truly be over. Also on Oct. 10, 1985, columnist Lester Flemons (‘87) acknowledged these difficult truths. 

“There will always be problems to confront the minority student at Notre Dame,” he wrote. “In the future, hopefully, the administration will increase its efforts to address the situation.”

Black History Month celebrated through festival of the arts and diverse talent

Feb. 5, 1982 | Joy Leapheart | Researched by Lilyann Gardner 

The Black Cultural Arts Festival at the University of Notre Dame was viewed by many students as the perfect start to Black History Month and the celebration of Black excellence in the arts. 

The students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College came together in a collaborative effort to shine a spotlight on the talents of esteemed Black artists from across the United States and from the local tri-campus community. 

The guest speakers for the Black Cultural Arts Festival of 1982 included Lerone Bennett, Jr., an author and historian who acted as Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, and Sonia Sanchez, a poet and a prominent figure in the Black Arts Movement. 

Observer archives, Feb. 5, 1982

Darlene Sowell (‘82), the chairperson of the festival, stated, “We pick our speakers because of the diversity of their talents and careers. We want to present a positive image of the Black experience and a positive role model, not only to the majority students on campus but to the minority students as well.”

The speakers made profound impacts on the students by highlighting the festival’s theme of “Cultural Dimensions” through poetry readings and powerful performances; however, the process of inviting these notable guests was not an easy task.   

The first Black Cultural Arts Festival began in 1968 and lacked financial support or an established budget. The festival was considered a part of Black Cultural Arts Council (BCAC), which resulted in very little money being allocated to this specific event. 

The financial deficit brought about an absence of speakers, and the Director of Minority Student Affairs recognized a change was needed in order to ensure the celebration continued in the years to come. 

“According to Director of Minority Student Affairs Edward Blackwell, the festival and the council have become two separate organizations on campus,” wrote Showcase author Joy Leapheart (‘83). 

The separation of the Black Cultural Arts Festival from the Black Cultural Arts Council did not create a schism between the organizations. In fact, the festival acknowledged the BCAC as its primary sponsor and many individuals remained members of both groups. 

By 1982, the financial problems had all but disappeared and the festival had become “established as a part of campus life.” The accomplishments of Black students were being commended alongside well-known authors, poets, artists and actors. Additionally, students gained a greater education and appreciation for diversity in art. 

Observer archives, Feb. 5, 1982
Students perform the musical “And You Thought All We Could Do Was Dance” at the Black Cultural Arts Festival.

Leapheart (‘83) emphasized the following statement at the approach of the 14th annual festival, “The goals of the Black Cultural Arts Festival are to provide an awareness of Black cultural experience, an understanding of various aspects of Black life and an awareness of the achievements and talents of the Black students within the Notre Dame community.” 

The Black Cultural Arts Festival was the culmination of creative works by Black artists who were striving to share the beauty of their culture.

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About Uyen Le

Uyen is a senior at Notre Dame, studying English and Gender Studies. She is currently serving as the Leader of the From the Archives Project. Though she loyally follows AP Style in The Observer, on all other platforms, she is a strong proponent of the Oxford comma.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a Notre Dame senior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She served as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

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About Spencer Kelly

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a senior at Notre Dame from Morristown, Tennessee majoring in psychology and English with a concentration in creative writing. He served as The Observer’s Managing Editor for the 2021-2022 term, and is currently rekindling his relationship with the Oxford comma. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

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About Lilyann Gardner

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