“When I Rise” aired in early February on various PBS stations throughout the country as a PBS Independent Lens series and was made possible, in part, by AT&T. The documentary tells Smith Conrad’s story of being among the first African Americans admitted to the University of Texas and the controversy that she withstood as a student during the Civil Rights movement in the late ’50s.

It’s no mystery that racism did not end in 1865 with the civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation. Since that time, “African Americans in the United States have struggled against institutional racism, forced segregation, violation of voting rights and even terrorism.”[1] What happened to Barbara Smith Conrad in 1957 could be considered just another example of racism in America, but for her story, there’s more.

The story documents a poignant story of a talented young woman who was a descendent of freed men in Center Point, located in East Texas. There, Smith Conrad had a strong Christian upbringing, close family, and a sense of community which yielded a strong self worth in her from an early age. Throughout her childhood, music played a significant role. With the help of a network of friends and associates, she overcame the “storm that changed her life.”[2]

When Ms. Smith Conrad was admitted as one of the first African-Americans to the University in Texas of Austin, not only was she setting precedent in this regard, but then she found herself in another controversy. She was quickly discovered for her ability to sing opera and was cast in the lead role in the school’s production of Dido and Aenas. She was the first African American woman playing a romantic lead opposite a white man. Upon hearing of this, segregationalists as well as Texas State Representative, Joe Chapman, strongly objected and threatened to cut University funding. University of Texas dean, Logan Wilson, was pressured to force Ms. Smith Conrad to step down from her role as the lead. Campus uproar ensued and the story became national news. After relentless threats and harassment, Smith Conrad took a hiatus from UT and decided to return to East Texas to regroup. As the story became national news, celebrity onlooker, Harry Belafonte, took an interest in seeing Barbara succeed in her singing career and offered her an opportunity to study at any place of her choosing. After much contemplation, Smith Conrad returned and graduated from UT.

The friendship Smith Conrad developed with Harry Belafonte changed her life forever and led her to move to New York to pursue her musical aspirations. Mr. Belafonte introduced her to Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and a number of people involved in music. Ms. Smith Conrad was later introduced to Maestro Rudel, who also took an interest in Smith Conrad’s abilities. His involvement further developed Smith Conrad’s successful career in film and opera. Over the decades, she has performed at numerous world-famous opera houses.

As the documentary reveals, the Texas Legislature and University of Texas amended their prior behaviors. House Resolution HCR-31 commended Ms. Smith Conrad on her accomplished musical career and her role in the civil rights movement in the U.S. Ms. Smith Conrad was also presented with the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas. In Ms. Smith Conrad’s honor, the University of Texas at Austin established the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts.

Ms. Smith Conrad continues to perform and also shares her craft with young talent by working with students at the Mannes College of Music in New York and teaches a master’s course at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Smith Conrad’s triumphant success can be attributed to her maturity to forgive and move forward. In addition, the story inspires viewers by demonstrating strong faith, solid family values, and loving encouragement from a faith-filled community, contributing to the positive growth of any child. Appropriately, Smith Conrad begins every day with the same prayer, “Guide my feet Lord, while I run this race.”

[1] New World Encyclopedia, Slavery; Slavery in the United States, (April 18, 2008), http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org

[2] AT&T Sponsorship, “When I Rise” on PBS Independent Lens series Feb 8, http://insider.web.att.com/s/editorial.dll (Internal AT&T link)

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