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Out in Front

Note: This is the 28th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Christian Taske ’07

Years ago, Christopher Brown-Syed came across a Notre Dame College catalog from the first year his mother Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Brown Syed ’38 had taught in the art department at the College. The course catalog dated back to the late 1940s and Brown-Syed was “astonished at how progressive” the College was at the time.

“Oh, get with it, kid,” his mother told him. “We were always out in front.”

Brown-Syed had no reason to doubt his mother’s words. After all, she had been the first black student to attend and graduate from Notre Dame College – 30 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted.

Though Brown Syed never liked to stress race when talking about her accomplishments, she represents an important milestone in the history of Notre Dame, which today is one of the most diverse colleges in Ohio.

Betty Brown
Betty Brown Syed graduated with honors in 1938.

Born on Oct. 16, 1917, in Cleveland, Ohio, Brown Syed enrolled at Notre Dame College in 1934. She majored in art and music and graduated with honors on June 9, 1938. She gave frequent piano recitals as well as impromptu sessions, and at one time planned a career as a concert pianist. Instead, she pursued training in portrait painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Art Students League of New York. Her teachers included the noted artists Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Frank Jirouch.

After further studies in art history at the University of Chicago, Brown Syed returned to Notre Dame College in the late 1940s to teach art and art history. During that time she began creating ceramics, copper enamel and silk-screen.

Brown Syed continued to work with these materials after she moved to Canada in the 1950s. A Burlington, Ontario, resident since 1955, she was a founding member of various regional arts association and served several terms as president of the Artisans’ Guild of Hamilton. She also emceed a live arts and crafts television series called “Gallery 111.”

Brown Syed exhibited and was employed for several years at Alice Peck’s ground-breaking Burlington gallery “The Treasury,” where many Canadian artists and crafts-people, including Robert Bateman and Norval Morrisseau, first unveiled their work. Brown Syed’s work was exhibited and sold in galleries in Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville and Toronto.

In her later years, Brown Syed became interested in landscapes and natural subjects. Her principal medium was oil on canvas. Often involving heavy palette-knife work or brush strokes, her paintings brought her highly individual sense of the play of light and shadow to both human and natural subjects. Her major influences included Claude Monet and her own mentors, Jirouch and Kunioshi.

Brown Syed continued to paint and sketch until her 90s. She died at age 94 on March 8, 2012, two days after her 61-year-old son Christopher died suddenly at his home in Burlington.

In 1983, the 45th anniversary of their graduation, her classmate Kathryn Murray Starrick ’38 donated $1,000 to the Black Scholars Organization at Notre Dame College in honor of Brown SyedStarrick said she remembered her friendship with Brown Syed as “feeling adapted and nourished by Betty’s mother’s heart and her father’s head.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.