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.
My path to Notre Dame was, like those of so many African Americans growing up in the South, far from preordained. I was raised in the Catholic tradition in New Orleans, despite the fact that my family was predominantly Baptist. My parents’ divorce precipitated my move to New Orleans in 1974, when I was six years old. It was also at that age that I began to discern religious and cultural differences among my childhood friends and classmates. We didn’t realize it then, but we were among the first generation of children who never experienced a legally segregated school environment.
I attended public schools through the eighth grade. We lived in a working-class neighborhood. We were never poor, never did without the basics, although I recall often feeling like I was always “broke” relative to the kids I went to school with. We lived close enough to the neighborhoods we considered “rich” or well-off to daydream about how the “other side” lived. But we lived in an apartment complex and there was no shortage of reminders about what we didn’t have. Interestingly, New Orleans is as poignant a narrative about class as it is about race. But that’s a story for another day.
My neighborhood parish church, St. Maria Goretti, was my first portal into the Catholic Church and what would be my ever-evolving identity as an American black Catholic. I attended Brother Martin High School, an all-boys Catholic school founded in 1869 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. Brother Martin was the first school I attended that was predominantly white and Catholic. The irony is that New Orleans has historically had the largest concentration of black Catholics in the United States, so there was no shortage of black Catholic schools, like St. Augustine High School. Brother Martin had a strong tradition of athletic success to balance its stellar academic reputation, and it was my success as a student-athlete in that environment that set the stage for my tenure as a Notre Dame student-athlete.
I walked onto the Notre Dame campus in the fall of 1986 feeling like I was one of the luckiest people on the planet. It wasn’t because of some lifelong dream of attending Notre Dame, a la Rudy. It was far simpler than that: I had made it to college, to a very well-respected university, and my parents would not have to worry and stress about how we would pay for it as they did when I was in high school.
My Notre Dame experience as an African-American student was so influenced by my responsibilities as a football player that I barely had time to reflect. But when I did reflect — my God! The stark contrast to my upbringing was startling. Notre Dame looked like the whitest place I’d ever seen. Everyone, it seemed, was white, from a well-to-do family, Catholic, and, with few exceptions, of Irish descent. I remember early in my first semester my father called to ask how things were going. I remember telling him that football was rough because Lou Holtz was trying to rebuild the program. I also recall telling him that classes were extremely tough because everyone at Notre Dame, including the athletes, was off-the-charts smart. But the conversation came to a pensive pause when I said, “And Dad…if you take away the football and basketball players, there aren’t a whole lot of brothers on campus at all.” We laughed out loud together. This was a stark cultural contrast to my father’s experience playing for the legendary coach Eddie Robinson at historically black Grambling State University.
The black athletes at Notre Dame were really easy to identify on campus. What was harder to pick out was the black student who was not an athlete, many of whom had to suffer the indignity of being asked what sport they played every time they were introduced to someone on campus, or worse, the indifference they sometimes felt from others when it was clear they were not athletes. My life as a football player isolated me from so much of what my fellow black students had to endure trying to “fit in.” The athlete at Notre Dame is embraced by the Notre Dame community from Day One.
You’re a campus celebrity; students and alumni alike want to get to know you, to introduce you to their friends, their parents, their bosses. If you’re black and not an athlete, you might as well be invisible. I recall feeling a tremendous sense of guilt when one of my classmates was proudly introducing me to his parents. He’d obviously told them that he’d become friends with this “really cool” football player. I happened to be walking toward the North Dining Hall with another black male student who was not a football player. I introduced him to the couple and, of course, they asked him, “What position do you play on the team?” When he told them he was not a football player, they, too, were a bit embarrassed and tried to feign interest in continuing the conversation.
I never got the sense that there was ill will or neglect on the part of the campus leadership. In fact, the University tried mightily to address the cultural divide and improve the campus experience for minority students. I recall the Office of Multicultural Affairs as the main conduit for most of the programs designed to break down the cultural barriers on campus. Most were well- intentioned and a few were really successful. Some, like soul food week during Black History Month, were downright disastrous. The Office of Student Affairs struggled mightily in the 1980s and early 1990s to get its hands around what role it could or should play in fostering an environment on campus that was welcoming, and not just tolerant, of the growing number of minorities on campus. It was evident that the University was aware of its problem, but wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
The black students on campus — athletes and non- athletes alike — tended to lean on each other for support. The overwhelming majority of us came from similar backgrounds. No one forced us to attend Notre Dame, and we each certainly had other options. As a result, I always felt that the onus was on me to figure out how to “fit in.” To me, that pressure was more debilitating than any academic challenge I ever faced at Notre Dame. Thankfully, many of us had black (and sometimes white) “families” off campus. These were blessed souls who provided a place of refuge when we needed the familiar comfort of a Sunday meal, or an understanding shoulder to cry on. They affirmed who we were as young black men and women working hard to make our way in an often unforgiving white academic and social environment. I will always be grateful for Delores Smith and her husband (we called him “Smitty”) and Mr. Charlie Watkins. They, and the many black families in South Bend like them, were the difference between young black kids thriving at Notre Dame or just surviving, as so many of us did.
I believed as a student just as I believe now that Notre Dame was not always the place to be, but if I could gut it out and finish, Notre Dame would always be the place to be from. I graduated from the College of Arts and Letters in 1990 and went on to receive both a juris doctor and an MBA from Tulane University. The value of the Notre Dame brand and the alumni network means far more to me today than it did when I was a student. As an undergraduate I was constantly sold on Notre Dame’s aspirations as a university. It was those same aspirations that I have, in turn, sold to my daughter, who is a current Notre Dame student.
I made a conscious decision to give back to Notre Dame with my time, talent, and treasure the moment I graduated. I chose to engage the University through the alumni association, National Alumni Board, advisory councils and, now, as a University trustee. I made a decision to be a part of the change I wanted to see in the University when I was a student. I do believe that Notre Dame’s aspirations are worthy of my and our best efforts. The University is grappling with its identity as a Catholic institution and what that means in an ever-changing Catholic Diaspora. The face of Catholicism is changing as the church seeks to hold on to both its historical roots and its relevance across the world. The Irish Catholic ethos still speaks louder at Notre Dame to black students than does her Catholic ethos. Nevertheless, what Notre Dame stands for and what the Fighting Irish fight for is worth protecting. God. Family. Country. Notre Dame. We Are ND!
Rod West came to Notre Dame in autumn 1986 from New Orleans. He majored in American Studies and was a member of the football team. After graduation he earned JD and MBA degrees at Tulane. He currently is executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Entergy Corporation. He also is a member of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees. He and his wife, Madeline, live in New Orleans.