Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame, published by Corby Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
Although our numbers may be few, if you look closely at Notre Dame’s heritage, there are African-American families whose stories illuminate the breadth of the Notre Dame experience. As generations beget generations, these families define a Notre Dame tradition. Their legacy of scholarship and service bridges the divide between people of color and one of our nation’s preeminent Catholic universities. To them, Notre Dame is home because it is where they formed the bonds that define their lives. We are one of those families.
It all began with my parents.
My father, Ralph Boyd, was raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, and was seventeen years old when Notre Dame recruited him as a track athlete. He was a quiet intellect who was both handsome and fit. To hear him speak of it now, it’s clear he ventured to the University with little preconception. He was a student and Notre Dame was a good school. The pairing seemed natural. And yet, upon arrival at Morrissey Hall in 1977, he was greeted as a stranger, an outcast.
While most students were grappling over loft and appliance purchases and the shared expenses of communal life, his roommates created a furniture barricade that barred him from entering the common space. Orientation had barely begun and, rather than being welcomed into the community where he would later meet his wife and send his children, he was ostracized to live alone, in a side room. So he did.
But he refused to be embittered and instantly befriended a freshman from New Orleans who lived down the hall. Their friendship, which has endured long beyond their time on campus, helped mitigate the sting of rejection and cultivated the space for my dad to experience Notre Dame beyond the limitations of his dorm room walls.
Early in his freshman year, the rector visited his suite. As my dad noted, he surveyed the room, obviously divided, and made no mention of it. Neither did my dad. And yet, without formal complaint or even direct acknowledgment of what occurred, my father returned to the University the next year to find he had been transferred to Carroll Hall, a dormitory of single- occupancy rooms. He continued as a civil-engineering major and left the University as a senior, before receiving his degree.
To this day, however, he speaks highly of Notre Dame and says he cherished his time there—afternoons spent at the Rockne Memorial playing some of the best pick-up basketball games of his life; swimming in the pool on the weekends with friends, and all-out dance parties with the other black students who never required alcohol to get the festivities started. Most of all, he will tell you, he loves Notre Dame because that is where he met his wife.
If my father’s introduction to the University showed the dark side of the Dome, unceremoniously indifferent and cold, my mother’s showed its light. Avis Jones was a ROTC scholarship student from Jackson, Mississippi, and she loved Notre Dame. Hers was one of the millions of families across the country whose members fell in love with the University on Saturday mornings, through the eyes of their televisions, as the beloved football team took the field. Though they had never actually visited the University, her father regaled her with tales of the legends of Notre Dame football, and her mother, a devout Catholic, held a deep respect for the prestigious religious school. As the salutatorian of her Catholic high school and a loyal football fan, it seemed she was destined for Notre Dame. And she was, because it was there that she met my father, and our family began.
As a spirited 20 year old, with strength and grit beyond her years, she and my father wed and she had her first child as a junior. When I think of the contentious debates my generation had over the complexities and wonder of female sexuality, it makes me proud to know that, little more than twenty-five years before, my mother had the brass and wit to thrive as a married, pregnant student on a Catholic college campus. I can only imagine how she must have felt. Notre Dame may be many things, but tolerant of difference has not always been its strong suit. Ask my father. And yet my mother not only did it, she excelled—and without missing a beat. She went into labor in her child psychology class, took a few days of maternity leave, and went back to graduate on time as a biology major.
Their baby, my older sister, Tona Boyd, was born in South Bend and spent her first year of life on Notre Dame’s campus, in married student housing with our parents. Given the circumstances of her arrival, she was a quick study from birth—talking at eight months, reading by three years. Our parents say it was clear from very early on that she was a beautiful mix of my father’s sharp intellect and my mother’s strength. When the time came she had her pick of Ivy League institutions, yet she chose to return to the school of her birth. There she embraced all the University had to offer, both on campus and abroad. She spent a year studying in Spain, a summer doing service in Honduras, and was actively involved in the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies and campus ministry.
Although our father never received a degree, his first-born daughter would achieve that and more. As the first African-American student in the honors program, she triple-majored in government, Spanish, and philosophy, and minored in peace studies. In her senior year she was the first African American to be awarded the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Undergraduate Award, and she graduated from the University summa cum laude.
And then, of course, there was me.
Notre Dame, it seems, is one of those places where you either instantly feel a part of something or instantly realize you are on the outside. During my time there, I felt both. I chose the University, after all, for its familiarity. I found security in the halls where my mother and father had walked and the place of my sister’s birth. And then, as a student, there were times at pep rallies and football games where the sway of the crowd and the metered rhythm of the band drowned out any feeling of isolation. I was with my roommates and as I shouted “We are ND,” I believed it.
And yet there were also times when I felt lost in- side a vortex of sameness. For example, that moment in class when other students looked at me to represent “the black opinion” because, well, I was the only black person there. Or when California seemed like an exotic destination and “North Face” apparel was the only suitable solution to winter’s bite. Or the times when uniformity seemed to extend from the architectural aesthetic to the points of view considered worthy of shared conversation and debate.
I remember the first time I publicly confronted what I considered the student body’s homogeneous perspective on race in America. The memories of writing my first Observer article are still vivid in my head. I was in Lewis Hall, at my desk, on the phone with my mother, furious about an article written by a fellow student and published in my school paper. The article demeaned minority students, arguing they were “relying on pity in order to achieve” and “demanding that society lower the merit bar so that they can compete.”
The ignorance was obvious, but I questioned the need to legitimize this blatant disregard for the scholastic ability of minority students by the largest vehicle for student expression on campus. So I submitted a letter to the editor and it was published. My article garnered so much attention that the author of the original article reached out to me and apologized. We mutually decided to host a town hall meeting encouraging Notre Dame students to start a dialogue about race on campus. Afterwards, we summarized the need for dialogue about these difficult topics in a joint piece in the Observer.
This public forum gave me the opportunity to be appointed the inaugural chair of the Student Senate’s minority affairs committee, which led an initiative to create a cultural competency requirement for under- graduate students.
It seems I chose Notre Dame and Notre Dame chose me. During my time there, I met wonderful mentors, made lifelong friendships, and found the freedom to design my own major: Africana studies and health. I became the first graduate with a major in Africana studies (prior to that, only a minor was available) and used my degree to explore the dynamic relationship between health and society, particularly as it relates to marginalized and minority communities. As a senior, my efforts to promote diversity on campus and create a cultural competency requirement were honored as I was named the recipient of the Lou Holtz Leadership Award and the Frazier Thompson Scholarship.
In the end, my family’s story is Notre Dame’s story. Our legacy began with my father having the grace to look beyond the intolerance he met at the University. It continued with my parents’ courage to raise a young, black family on a Catholic college campus. And it found meaning as my sister and I went on to unprecedented success at Notre Dame. What was started under the Dome finished under the Dome. And because our parents were willing to confront adversity with faith and love, the University benefited from the scholarship and service of our family.
Today my parents have been married for thirty-three years. My father used his engineering background to work in civil engineering, professional construction management, and renewable energy development. My mother leveraged her biology degree to work in military space systems management, health care, communications, cable TV management, and non-profit management. My sister took her interest in justice and peace to Harvard Law School and is now a trial attorney at the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. And I am a pediatrician and child health advocate who continues to serve underserved communities.
We may not be the typical face of the University, but we certainly are ND.
Rhea Boyd came to Notre Dame in autumn 2002 from Akron, Ohio. She majored in Africana Studies and Health, a program of her own design. After graduation she earned an MD at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. She lives in San Francisco where she is a practicing pediatrician and child health advocate.