Notre Dame Press Marketing Intern Sydni Brooks interviewed her godmother, Ramona Payne, one of the students in Black Domers: African-American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words. Ramona and her husband, Tony Fitts, share their experiences as Black students at Notre Dame and provide wisdom for future students.
Sydni: So my first question is basically like, your name, where you’re from, what class you were in, and I guess, just your major.
Ramona: Ramona Payne, from Cincinnati Ohio, class of 1980, and my major was psychology.
Tony: Tony Fitts, born in Brooklyn, lived all over because my dad was Army, class of ‘79, majoring in accounting.
Sydni: How did you decide on Notre Dame?
Ramona: I came when I was a high school junior or senior. One of the priests had come to Ursuline (SB: an all girl’s high school in Cincinnati) and talked to us about the school and it sounded like a school I was interested in, also Notre Dame had recently gone co-ed and had started accepting women, and so I went up for a visit. My father drove me and my brother, who also ended up coming to Notre Dame, for a visit and when I got there I just felt like it was a really good school academically, and I felt like if I decided to change my major, no matter what I decided to study, I would have a good foundation.
Tony: When I came to campus, I had never visited the school beforehand. I was good at math, so I figured I would study accounting, and Notre Dame had one of the top ranked accounting programs in the country. I also got a letter from Dan Saracino, (SB: former assistant provost) who was coordinating undergraduate admissions then, and then later found out he had been in California where I was living at the time, so it just kind of clicked.
Sydni: How did your identity as a Black person affect this decision to attend Notre Dame? What were your thoughts about being a Black person at this school?
Tony: I don’t know if it affected my decision to go to Notre Dame, but there were a lot of decisions at Notre Dame that were affected by the fact that I was Black.
Ramona: I think, for me, because I come from a high school where I was the only Black student in my class and the only Black student in my high school two out of the four years that I was there, when I went to Notre Dame, I was aware that at least I would have other Black students around. For me, that was a real positive. I didn’t look at it from the standpoint of if I had gone to a state school or if I had gone to an HBCU, I was just glad that there would be some other Black people there. So I was actually relieved to know that there would be other Black students there. I don’t think it was a concern for me in terms of thinking if I could do the work, because I was more than confident that I was academically prepared to do the work.
Tony: I think in the same kind of way, a bit because of the Army and as much as we moved around, the idea of being somewhere new, being one of the few Black students in the class or in the school, it was nothing new to me, so it was nothing intimidating to me. There was nothing intimidating about making the decision to go somewhere away from home either because I was used to going anywhere.
Sydni: Ramona, being in one of those first classes of women, what was your experience not only as a woman at Notre Dame, but as a Black woman at Notre Dame?
Ramona: I think when I went there, I don’t think Notre Dame was fully prepared to have women on campus. I later found out that some of the male students were told that the girls who were coming were very smart and maybe even smarter than they were, so it set up this competition that began before we got in the classroom because of some of the messages the boys got about the girls coming. I think there were probably people who mistakenly assumed that because we were Black, they would have to make some sort of accommodation because we perhaps weren’t as smart, or it was easier for us to get accepted into Notre Dame. I knew people felt that way, but I didn’t buy into it because I knew that I was ready. Later on, it definitely played a factor as far as opportunities. I never felt like professors particularly mentored me at Notre Dame, and that was something I talked to Helena (SB: Ramona’s daughter, my cousin, who also attended Notre Dame for undergrad) and you (SB: me, Sydni) about the importance of reaching out to her professors because I don’t feel like the professors mentored me. I was fortunate that other staff people looked out for me, but I didn’t feel like my professors looked out for me in the same way they did some of the other students.
Sydni: What was your favorite memory from Notre Dame?
Ramona: I have lots of good memories. More than anything I had a lot of really good memories
Tony: One of my favorite memories was my sophomore year, her (SB: Ramona’s freshman year) I saw her from across campus! (SB: This was only cute and funny because they’re married now.)
Sydni: How did you find your place at Notre Dame, specifically socially?
Ramona: I was happy to be at Notre Dame. I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that it was predominately male because I had strong men in my family, and I had four brothers, so that part never really bothered me. To find my place, it really was about getting to know the women in my dorm. Because I hadn’t had a lot of Black girls in my classes at Ursuline, from day one I tried to introduce myself, meet people, make friends, and get to know people. I got involved in clubs, put myself out for leadership positions, I volunteered on campus, did part time work on campus, and tried to stay involved.
Tony: I think for me, socially, everything kind of starts around the dorm, but being Black, there is a difference because you also spread yourself among everyone else who is Black on campus. I remember the first day on campus, I ran into a guy who ended up being my best friend who’s from Detroit. He was sitting on a bench moping. I said to him “I’m on the way to the Rock to play ball, do you wanna go?” and we became friends like that all the way through. So socially, we connected sometimes on a need to connect, and then other events on campus pulled us together at times, like Bookstore Basketball was an event that caused all of us to look out for each other, but I think more out of need than anything else.
Sydni: Watching me go through the same process you all did as a Black student on campus, how has the university changed in regards to accommodating for their Black students and students of color?
Ramona: We had the BCAC, but the BCAC for us was a place on campus for us, where we had our own room and our own space in Lafortune. We used to throw parties in there. Now I think it’s where multicultural affairs is, so that’s a change. We may not have the space anymore, but there is an office committed to addressing the needs of diverse students. Certainly in the number of students there is a change. In our class there were probably 30 or so Black students per class, so the numbers, although they are not as high as they could be, they are certainly higher than it was. They had a department for Africana Studies, and you could take classes, but I don’t think you could get a major in it. I think maybe the curriculum has improved. In the performing arts center, it may be a bit different in the last couple of years because of COVID, but I think there was an attempt to bring in diverse performers, whether they were singers, dancers, or musicians. So I think those are the kinds of things that do help. One thing that I think that has been lost is that when we were there, you knew every Black person on campus. I don’t think you all know that anymore. We knew everybody by name. You didn’t have to be best friends, but you knew everyone. And we all spoke; when you were walking about campus, even if you just nodded your head, you all don’t do that now. But back then, we didn’t have that luxury.
Tony: There were maybe one or two who didn’t speak, but that was it. But the ones who didn’t speak were the odd ducks.
Sydni: How did you grow in your identity as a Black person in your time at Notre Dame?
Tony: Mine was different because I looked at coming to Notre Dame as a chance to meet with other Black students who were trying to do something. So I had this idea that we were going to come together and get past stuff, and then I found out that we were all just a bunch of kids, and we did kid stuff. It was an awakening for me, but then I had to get over myself. I still identify as a Black student at Notre Dame because it has its own definitions, and there are things about Notre Dame that I am proud of and I’m happy about, and there are other things that are clear conflicts that are different here than anything else, and that’s a disappointment, because that’s what I came in thinking would be different about Notre Dame, and some things are not different than the rest of the world.
Ramona: I feel like I had a strong sense of my identity as a Black person before I went to Notre Dame. I think what Notre Dame gave me was exposure to other types of Black experiences. For example, someone from Cincinnati, being from the Midwest, going to Catholic schools like I did, my entry into Notre Dame was pretty seamless because that was my comfort zone and that’s what I was used to. But then I had friends who were from different parts of Chicago, and I assumed that we had similar experiences, but then I realized that was incorrect. She might have gone to a Catholic school, but it was predominately Black, so for her, coming to Notre Dame was different. I had other friends who grew up in the south, so their experience coming to Notre Dame was different because they went through different things being Black people in the south. For example, some of my friends from different areas weren’t able to go to their prom, or the prom not being in certain places because they weren’t welcome in that venue. That never happened to me in Cincinnati; if there was a prom, no matter where it was, I could go. They couldn’t go, or they had to change locations. Or not being able to swim in specific pools at swim meets; I never had that experience in Cincinnati. So I think my identity grew not so much from anything Notre Dame did, but because there were Black students there from diverse experiences that were different from mine, and that helped broaden my understanding of what it meant to be Black and made me realize my experience wasn’t necessarily reflective of everyone else’s.
Sydni: What advice would you give Black students and students of color currently attending Notre Dame, and those recently graduated who are navigating life after Notre Dame?
Ramona: First of all, to know that if you are there, you belong there, regardless of how people treat you or what they say to you. You are there, you belong there, you have a place there, and never let anyone make you feel like you don’t, or you simply lucked out in getting there—don’t fall for that. Make sure you know who your Black and Brown brothers and sisters are because they can be a support for you, but also get to know white students and students from other ethnic groups because the world is increasingly diverse. To the extent that you are comfortable, being able to navigate different cultures enriches you as a human being and prepares you for the world we live in. Sometimes it gets easy to feel isolated or to isolate yourself, but Notre Dame provides you with the opportunity to do that, so take advantage of it because that’s what the world is like. Also, give each other a break. Everybody comes there with their own problems, and sometimes you don’t know about them or they won’t share them, but extend grace and be kind.
Tony: I would say to embrace Notre Dame. I think the one thing that happens a lot is that when we graduate, we say “done,” it’s in the rear view mirror, I don’t want to see it anymore, but I think that’s a mistake. There’s a lot you need to leverage about Notre Dame. Like Ramona said about belonging, we do belong, and we belong with all of the benefits of being a Notre Dame alumni, so take advantage of that. Take advantage of the networks, wherever they are, and take advantage of that all the way through. There are so many people who attend Notre Dame who understand what the networks are, and they utilize that. So if you go there, use it.