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.
It was the fall of 1972 when I received a letter from Notre Dame saying that, as part of the admission application process, I would be interviewed at my home in Compton, California, by Dr. Emil T. Hofman. On the day of the interview my mom was up early, baking cookies and setting out good china. When Dr. Hofman arrived, mom invited him in and served tea and homemade cookies. We sat in our rarely used living room as he asked questions about my life and goals. About thirty minutes into the interview, Dr. Hofman said that he didn’t think that my education in Compton would make for academic success at Notre Dame. No sooner had he finished his sentence than my mom swooped in, scooped up his tea cup and saucer and said, “Well I guess this interview is over.”
Despite Emil T.’s skepticism and that of my Dominguez High School counselor, I was admitted to Notre Dame. And my parents told me that, regardless of anyone’s skepticism, they would support me wherever I went. I chose Notre Dame and became part of the second class of women admitted to the University. I was the first black woman from my two hometowns — Gary, Indiana, where I was born, and Compton, where we had moved when I was in elementary school — to be accepted to Notre Dame. I was one of twelve black women in the 1973 freshman class.
Since I had never seen the campus, I arrived at Notre Dame a couple of weeks early and had ample time to walk the campus by myself. I was overwhelmed by the architecture, the f lowers and the statues. I walked to the lakes and ran from the ducks. I came upon the Grotto and, as I walked up and lit a candle, it was as if something came over me and I had a feeling of beloning. It was at that moment I knew that Notre Dame was where I belonged. The Grotto became my solace and my favorite place while I was at Notre Dame. Since becoming an alumna I get that same feeling of belonging every time I visit the Grotto.
I had always shared a room growing up, so having roommates was nothing new and truly nothing I wanted to repeat. So I didn’t spend a lot of time in my room or with my roommates during freshman year. By the end of the year, I had become friends with another black freshman, Andrea “Andi” Ransom. We both applied for singles in Lyons Hall, which was being converted to a women’s dorm, for the following year, and we both were awarded singles!
I struggled academically freshman year after I severely sprained my ankle while trying out for the basketball team. I went through the winter on crutches in the snow. I considered myself an athlete and had great expectations of playing sports while at Notre Dame, but that didn’t materialize my freshman year. When I wasn’t in class I spent a good deal of my time, by choice, with other black students. I loved to dance so I started a dance-drill team that actually performed at the men’s basketball games. I sang in the gospel choir, although I knew nothing about gospel music. I even sang Al Green songs on the north quad at all hours of the night with friends, while students trying to get their rest yelled “Shut up!” from their dorm windows. I occasionally went off campus with my assigned family through a program administered by Paula Dawning, a counselor for the black students, or with Frances Hub- bard, the secretary who worked in the black studies program office. Sometimes I would rustle up as many friends as I could to get rib-tip sandwiches to split and eat until we were full! I still eat only rib-tip sandwiches to this day.
With the encouragement of Paula Dawning, I got involved in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and mentored wonderful little brothers whom I still communicate with today. I took part in the creation of the first newsletter for the black community at Notre Dame, “The Ebony Side of the Dome,” and created the original artwork for the logo. I was always present when the black cultural arts center brought guest speakers, such as Julian Bond, Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael, to campus.
The downside of life at the Dome was heartwrenching at times for me. I remember as a freshman going into a store in South Bend to buy art supplies, and a woman screamed, “There’s a n-word!” and she was pointing at me. Go figure! I called home that day and cried to my mother.
That same year in the South Dining Hall, I put my tray in the window on the conveyor and one of the workers pushed it back and yelled that he wasn’t “busing no n-word’s tray.” I walked away in disbelief and called home yet again.
Over spring break in Howard Hall, someone’s father, wearing a big, ten-gallon hat, tried to summon me, saying, “Hey gal, c’mon over here and empty my son’s trash cans!” He thought I was a maid. I told him, “Just one moment,” walked away and didn’t return.
One winter night my sophomore year, Andi and I had just pulled a chilled bottle of Manischewitz Cream White Concord out of the window when we were interrupted by a knock at the door. It was a girl who lived on our floor who wanted to ask us a question. “Sure,” I said, “come on in.” It turned out that she wanted to see our tails! She said that she had grown up learning that at night black people grew tails! Now that warranted a call home for sure!
I encountered behaviors like these far too often. When I walked to class, students asked to touch my hair, or would call me the n-word from behind. Though frustrated often, my mom could always bring me back around and put me back on track. My first two years at Notre Dame were beyond challenging and, needless to say, I made a lot of calls home.
There were a couple of individuals other than my mom who kept me sane and added benefit to my life while at Notre Dame. The first was Father Theodore Hesburgh. I met him shortly after joining the yearbook staff my first year. I had encountered so much overt and covert racism that I joined a sit-in on the steps of the Administration Building in protest. When asked who could help us, I suggested talking to Father Hesburgh. I was escorted to his office and there we talked about racism, the world and my life at Notre Dame. He spoke about ignorance and expectation and he listened to me. I felt somewhat relieved and totally respected. He told me his door was always open and I used it. Some days I would run into him at the Grotto and on other days he’d be walking about campus with his hands tucked behind his back. I appreciated our conversations, as I know they lessened the number of my phone calls home. On the day of my graduation, Father Hesburgh spent ample time with my parents talking about me, and I will always respect him for being honest and available.
An individual who first scared me to death but whom I later learned to love to death was Coach Rich- ard “Digger” Phelps. Digger didn’t appear to ever see color. He saw skill, ability, potential or the lack thereof. I saw Digger’s job as molding individuals into prime athletes and he took it more seriously than anyone I had ever seen before.
As a freshman and a sophomore, I worked for Astrid Hotvedt in the women’s athletic office. As a junior and a senior, I worked for Digger in the men’s basketball office. Watching him interact with his athletes and watching his practices gave me a bird’s-eye view of what being a real coach was. He was passionate to a fault and never held anything back.
After graduating from Notre Dame and moving back to California, I began to coach basketball and I strove to be that kind of coach. And when I ended my very successful eighteen-year coaching career, I could only thank Digger for modeling the style of coach I became. I’m proud to say that I was well respected by most and had teams that were feared by many.
After graduation, I realized I was deeply affected and personally angry about part of my experience at Notre Dame. Professionally I realized that I was hired and lauded because of my having graduated from Notre Dame. But because of what I had experienced, I preferred that my children not become legacies. As an alumna, I wanted to help with recruitment efforts but could not say, in my heart of hearts, that Notre Dame was the “best place” for a black student. I wanted to be proud of being part of the “ebony side of the Dome,” but had to acknowledge that a good many other Domers didn’t even want us there. I was part of the original Black Alumni of Notre Dame meetings and am even in a picture of the pioneers of the organization that hangs in the convocation center, but my name is not there.
Everything changed dramatically on May 4, 2003. That’s when I had a conversation with Andrea Renee Ransom on her deathbed. In her pain — she was dying of breast cancer — and without hesitation, she was thinking of me. She whispered, “Stop being so mad. Stop remembering so much. I know what you went through. I know what we went through, but you got through it and you’re still here. A lot happened to us…but you’re still here. Do your artwork and stop being a closet artist. Help children learn because that’s what you’re passionate about…and stop being mad.”
I made her a promise to stop being mad and when she passed away, shortly thereafter, I was done. Today, I am totally optimistic about the future of my relationship with Notre Dame. I am active in my alumni work. I have grown and changed, as I hope the racial climate of Notre Dame has grown and changed. I am finally embracing every moment and opportunity I have with Notre Dame and without. I do love Notre Dame and I am who I am, in Notre Dame and in life.
Bonita Bradshaw came to Notre Dame in autumn 1973 from Compton, California. She majored in fine arts (industrial design). After graduation, she became a technical illustrator in the aerospace industry, before becoming an educator. She has two daughters and lives in Rancho Dominguez, California.