From the 1954 yearbook, Oldham and fellow students in a Notre Dame education department seminar.
During Notre Dame’s 1954 commencement ceremony, Father Ted Hesburgh summoned master’s degree recipient Algie Oldham out of the line of graduates.
“Algie was sort of panic struck,” says his wife, Sarah Oldham. “When the president calls you out of line, you think something bad at first.”
Instead, Hesburgh embraced him and said, “I am so proud of you.”
Born in Dyersburg, Tennessee in 1927, Oldham spent his undergraduate years studying education at Tennessee State, where he met Sarah, a South Bend native. Members of the Oldham family will celebrate their connections to both Tennessee State and Notre Dame when the schools meet on the football field September 2.
“We’re all just so sorry that he’s not around to go to this big reunion,” Sarah says of her husband, who died in 2011 at age 83.
Oldham graduated from Tennessee State in 1949 and spent two years in the Army before marrying Sarah in South Bend, where the couple would spend most of their adult lives. Attending Notre Dame on the G.I. Bill, he earned his master’s in education but found acceptance difficult on the overwhelmingly white campus in the pre-civil rights era.
“This was quite an ordeal,” Sarah says. “He experienced some things that weren’t very kind or friendly.”
He faced discrimination on campus, including from some students who did not want him in their study groups because of his race. “That was a hard pill to swallow,” says his daughter, Roslynn Lancaster. “But you make lemonade out of lemons, and do your best to succeed — which he did.”
Oldham still remembered his years at Notre Dame as a wonderful time, Sarah says. His struggles and joys at the University culminated in his graduation recognition from Hesburgh.
“I have the feeling from reading about the kind of person that Father Hesburgh was that he was watching . . . he was ever-present and aware,” says his son, Bryan. “I think that’s why Hesburgh came up to him and said what he said.”
Hesburgh’s pride in Oldham “just alleviated all of the pain and anxiety and all the negative feelings that he probably had and we certainly had as a family,” Sarah says. “That was a happy time.”
Despite his master’s degree, Oldham struggled to find a job in the South Bend school system, Roslynn says. “He had to work in the post office and sort mail.”
But his commitment to education did not waver. In time he landed a teaching position at Linden Elementary, which happened to be Sarah’s childhood school. That started a long and distinguished career in South Bend schools.
“He was driven, once he understood the position he was in, it was like building blocks — he would take on the next position,” Roslynn says. He served as a teacher and principal at several South Bend schools, retiring in 1989 after 15 years as Riley High School’s top administrator.
“He had people that cared about him when he was in high school,” Bryan says. “I think that was a part of what led him into the field, because he wanted to give back to the same kids that were much like him.”
Sarah remembers a night where they saw one of Oldham’s students hitchhiking after his car had broken down between Indianapolis and South Bend. Oldham circled back on the highway to pick up the young man.
“Algie said, ‘First of all, you don’t hitchhike, that’s dangerous’ — he taught a lesson there on U.S. 31,” Sarah says. “Then he said, ‘OK, get in the car with me, get up here in the front seat and I’m gonna take you home.’”
Oldham’s impact on young people — as well as on South Bend at-large, and the African American community within and beyond the city limits — far surpassed such personal interactions. Oldham also held several leadership positions in the Masonic Lodge, and served on the board of the South Bend Education Foundation and as a trustee of the South Bend N.A.A.C.P. He was a member of the South Bend Police Merit Board, Model Cities Neighborhood Board and South Bend Board of Zoning Appeals — among many other acts of public service. In 1993, he was inducted into the South Bend Hall of Fame.
Ebony magazine included Oldham on its list of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans in 2005 and 2006, and he remained an active member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which he joined at Tennessee State.
Oldham’s motivation, his family says, was not to receive recognition, but to reciprocate the support he received growing up in Tennessee. “It wasn’t all about the accolades and the awards and things like that, it was something on a different level,” Bryan says. “To help others like people helped him.”
As Algie and Sarah raised their family in South Bend, Notre Dame remained a large part of their lives. The family recalls visiting campus to see the library’s Word of Life mural, which was dedicated in 1964. They were also sports fans with regular tickets to basketball games.
“He was very proud of his Notre Dame experience,” Bryan says. “I didn’t know that he was a graduate until I was about 8 or 9 years old. . . . I was playing in his office and his diploma was up there on the wall. It wasn’t Latin — because I had seen words like that before — it was in French. I asked him what that was and he said, ‘That’s my master’s degree from Notre Dame.’”
Sarah, Roslynn, Bryan and five other family members will be attending Saturday’s football game between Algie’s two schools, Tennessee State and Notre Dame. His presence will be felt, too.
“This is a big thing in his life that he would’ve enjoyed,” Sarah says. “But just knowing what he did is good enough for the family.”
Kate Ross, a senior American studies major and journalism minor, was this magazine’s summer intern.