BARBARA LOUISE SMITH CONRAD
By Kate Stow
Until Barbara Louise Smith walked into the University of Texas at Austin, she had only known segregation as a way of life. She was raised in Center Point, a Freedman community outside of Pittsburg, Texas, that was founded by former slaves. Her father was principal of two small negro schools – Shady Grove and Honey Grove – in Cass County, and her mother was the teacher. Each week they came from Center Point to teach the younger children, and Barbara attended high school in Queen City with the local teenage African-Americans. On the weekends they stayed home and attended Center Point Baptist Church, where she honed her mezzo soprano singing voice.
In the Fall of 1956, Barbara learned about integration, and unfortunately, she also learned about a harsher kind of discrimination than segregation ever meant to her. She was one of the “Precursers,” the very first class of African-Americans to attend and integrate the University. In the Spring of 1957 she auditioned for, and won, the lead female role in “Dido and Aeneas.” At first she was thrilled to have won, but soon realized that the world of college theatre wasn’t yet ready for integration. It had only been two years since African-American contralto Marian Anderson had broken the color barrier at the Met Opera.
Texas State Representative Joe Chapman, ironically from Barbara’s district, discussed the issue with the University President. Soon the Dean of the College of Fine Arts informed her that she would be replaced- But not before she had been thoroughly harassed by many white students on campus. Barbara was quoted at the time as saying that administrators were “trying to achieve the most harmonious fulfillment of integration at the university.”
But outward appearances belied the true feelings she kept hidden.
“I felt such pain,” she told a University of Texas alumni magazine in 1998. “Inside I cried for years. You rarely saw a tear. And it was swallowing those tears that I think was the most costly for me. It would have been better if I would have screamed and ranted and raved.”
After a brief hiatus from college, and an offer from celebrity Harry Belafonte to pay for her schooling at any other college, Barbara returned to UT to finish her studies. Not long after graduation in 1959, she finally found herself appearing on the stage of the Met, and Opera houses overseas.
Belafonte had invited Barbara to audition in New York. The trip was financed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who as first lady in 1939 had arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution turned her away from Constitution Hall because of her race.
By 1965, she was appearing with the New York City Opera in the lead female role of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an opera to which she would return throughout her career. Barbara also sang with leading symphonies around the world, as well as at the White House and, in 1995, before Pope John Paul II when he visited New York City.
After graduating from UT-Austin, she kept her distance from the university for over 20 years before she accepted an invitation by administrators to return. She eventually received recognitions from the state legislature as well as the school and donated her personal archive to the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Don Carleton, the center’s director, was the executive producer of a documentary about her life, “When I Rise.”
Her story was shared with millions through the award-winning documentary. The film premiered at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival and aired nationally on the PBS series “Independent Lens.” It has since been distributed globally. “When I Rise” includes a scene of Conrad singing beneath the dome of the Texas Capitol during the 2009 legislative session immediately after state lawmakers passed a resolution honoring her and giving her the Texas Medal of Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and the History-Making Texan Award in 2011.
She was appointed to the Butler School of Music as a visiting professor and artist-in-residence in 2012, and she spoke at the commencement ceremony for the College of Fine Arts that year. Prior to that, she returned to give master classes and to coach opera students in the 1990s, and she performed in two concerts in the school in 2011.
“Music is a great healer and a great bonder,” Barbara said in 1998. “It just transcends everything. When I first discovered Bach preludes and fugues, I had to think about who I was talking to. You had to be reminded in those moments who was white, who was black, who was Asian, who was whatever. It was somebody who was struggling with the same issues you were struggling with, who was so passionately in love with the art form.”
Barbara’s great trailblazing career ended when she died on May 22, 2017. Her funeral was held at Center Point Baptist Church – the only building left in the old Freedman town that was absorbed into the Pittsburg city limits.
“Barbara Conrad was a trailblazer — from her Precursor days at UT in 1956 and throughout her distinguished opera career,” said Gregory L. Fenves, president of UT Austin, upon learning of her death. “Her accomplishments and tenacity represent an important chapter in the university’s history. We will miss her talents and presence on the Forty Acres and beyond.”