On PBS Tonight
Documentary highlights UT student's fight against racism in the '50s
In 1957, Barbara Smith Conrad was a University of Texas student whose musical talents were so great that she was cast as the lead in the opera, Dido and Aeneas.
But in those early days of desegregation, when some members of the Texas legislature found out that the African-American woman from a tiny East Texas town was cast to play opposite a white man, they threatened to withdraw university funding unless she was removed from the production.
After then-UT president Logan Wilson acquiesced to their demands, it caused a national uproar. Singing sensation Harry Belafonte offered to pay for Conrad's education at any college in the nation but she chose to stay at UT and finish her degree even though she received threatening phone calls and one man on campus spit in her face.
Conrad's little-known story is detailed in a documentary, When I Rise, on Channel 8 Tuesday at 10 p.m. as part of theIndependent Lensseries. What's striking — and uplifting — about the one-hour film is Conrad's quiet strength and lack of bitterness throughout the situation even to now.
Getting a good education was a dream, she says in the documentary, "and I was not about to have my dream destroyed, so I stayed. Can't run me out of my home state. Didn't like the feel of that."
She went back to being a student, "but I was always looking over my shoulder," she added, acknowledging the reality of the situation.
After graduating from UT in 1957, Conrad went on to a successful opera career. Based in New York, she performed with the Metropolitan Opera for eight years and played Marian Anderson in the ABC movie, Eleanor and Franklin.
In what appears to be an effort to right past wrongs, the university gave her a distinguished alumni award years later and, in 2009, the Texas legislature recognized her accomplishments, so the documentary resolves the conflict in an almost too tidy way. But it's nevertheless a powerful reminder that not that long ago, what happened to Conrad was not that unusual.
There's one part of the story I wish had been explored more fully. At UT, Conrad had a best friend in the music department, Carolyn Graves Good, who is white. "She was the first person that took me by the hand and included me in any activity," Conrad said in the documentary.
Nowadays, when just about every person under 30 has a friend of a different color or ethnicity, that is not so unusual. But back then, few people of different races mixed as equals and a simple act of friendship took monumental courage. It was a time when, as the documentary notes, a sign in an East Texas town boasted, "The Blackest Land" and "The Whitest People."
I was fascinated by what motivated Good to see beyond color to reach out to a stranger and also by the actions of Harley Clark, a student leader, also white, who petitioned the university president to keep Conrad in the production.
Like Conrad, they, too, are heroes.