William H. Alexander Sr. started working at Notre Dame in 1934, during the Great Depression. It is believed he was the first full-time, longtime African American employee at the University — Verly E. Smith served as a physical trainer for Knute Rockne’s football teams from 1924 to ’28 while holding down other jobs in South Bend. Smith eventually opened a downtown gym and became a highly regarded trainer for area high school teams and the South Bend YMCA.
Alexander’s first job at the University was as a “porter” in a campus residence hall. Family members say his duties likely included shining shoes and performing other tasks for hall residents. In 1938 he was promoted to a job in the mailroom in the Main Building, and by 1950 his title was University mailman.
Helping to break the color barrier on campus wasn’t easy. Alexander faced some resentment when he was named to the mail handler’s job. “Some students and faculty members openly showed they didn’t want me around,” he recalled in a 1950 interview in Ebony magazine. “But Father Leonard Carrico, then director of studies, fought them. He liked my work so I stayed on.”
Rev. J. Leonard Carrico, CSC, a 1903 Notre Dame graduate, served as an English professor, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and chair of the English department. He became director of studies in 1930, holding that position until his death in 1944.
Under the leadership of Carrico and others, Notre Dame admitted its first black students in the mid-1940s under the U.S. Navy’s V-12 officer training program for World War II.
Alexander was born in 1909 in Hickman, Kentucky, and grew up in a family of seven children. As a teenager he moved to South Bend in search of better job opportunities, shining shoes downtown before Notre Dame hired him.
He never had the opportunity to go beyond the fourth or fifth grade, but he was skilled with his hands. As an adult he spent a lot of time busy with tools at a workbench in his basement, says Clarissa Plair, a granddaughter who lives in the Dallas area.
Alexander was a quiet man who believed in hard work, she says. Plair grew up in South Bend, graduated from Adams High School and worked on campus at a dining hall and the library during high school and college. Her late mother, Dorothy Lea Coleman, one of Alexander’s three children, worked in a Notre Dame microbiology laboratory for 24 years.
In the early 1950s, Alexander built a house for his family on North St. Louis Boulevard, close enough to campus so he could walk to work. The house remains in the family, and his son John R. Alexander, 81, lives next door. John remembers working alongside his father to smooth the wet concrete for the foundation — and, when he was little, going to work with his father in the Main Building and helping sort the mail.
Plair grew up nearby on Campeau Street, and she would take short bike rides to visit her grandparents. “I spent quite a bit of time there,” she says.
During World War II, William and his wife, Lenora, both worked in an Indiana munitions plant to help the war effort. For his father, it was a second job to bring in extra money, John says.
The elder Alexander also bought several houses in South Bend, renovated them and maintained them as rental properties. During vacations, he returned to Kentucky and volunteered doing home upgrades — including installing bathrooms — for African Americans who lived near his hometown.
He enjoyed football, but didn’t have the time to attend home games, his son says. Still, he cheered for the Fighting Irish. “He was glad to see Notre Dame win,” John says.
William Alexander worked at Notre Dame for nearly three decades, resigning in 1962. He later worked at the YWCA, the downtown public library and Indiana University South Bend, primarily as a custodian. He died in 2001 at age 92.
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.