Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Sweet Music of Justice and Forgiveness

In 1957, Barbara Conrad was an undergraduate music student at the University of Texas at Austin. One of a small number of Black undergrads on campus at the time, she was determined to build a career as an opera singer despite the very real barriers that Jim Crow segregation and racism presented to her dream. In spite of the odds, the talented mezzo-soprano was cast that year to play the lead female role in the opera "Dido and Aeneas" opposite a white male lead. It should have been a cause for celebration. But this young opera singer became the center of a racial controversy that made its way all the up to the highest levels of state government, the Texas Legislature.

Shortly after the news spread that she had received the role all hell broke loose. According to the Austin American Statesman, Conrad began to receive threatening phone calls in her dormitory and one evening she was assaulted by two young white men as she made her way home. Still, she refused to give up the role. Black East Austinites began to get involved offering to provide transportation for Conrad and other Black students traveling to and from campus and keeping a watch over the women's dormitory on E. 12th Street. But, as the Statesman notes:

"That didn't stop the threats. Anonymous calls came into the office of UT fine arts Dean William Doty. And by April 1957, opposition to Conrad's pending May performance mounted in the Texas Legislature. Rep. Joe Chapman of Sulphur Springs, a leader of the House segregation bloc, warned UT officials that it would be a very bad move for the university's public relations. Though Chapman would deny that he threatened then-UT President Logan Wilson, the university's appropriations were about to come up before the Legislature.

Another state lawmaker was less evasive. Rep. Jerry Sadler, also a segregationist, denounced the university and told the Houston Post in an article about Conrad, "I mentioned appropriations and as a matter of fact voted against those for the university because they have Negro undergraduates."

Shortly thereafter, Conrad was removed from the role. The decision crushed Conrad, who, rather than choosing to leave the University (despite a rather tempting offer by Harry Belafonte, who offered to pay her tuition and fees at the school of her choosing if she wanted to leave Texas) she decided to stay and support the struggle to fully integrate the University. It seemed at the time that the segregationists had won.

But in 2009, Ms. Conrad is getting the last laugh. This past week, the Texas Legislature, the same body that had called for her removal more than fifty years ago, paid homage to the opera diva and passed a resolution in her honor. She also returned to the University of Texas at Austin to celebrate the re-opening of Bass Concert Hall, where she shared the stage with opera greats Frederica Von Stade and Samuel Ramey.

In a recent interview with the Austin American Statesman, Ms. Conrad spoke about her journey since 1957 and her genuine desire that this country begin to do the meaningful work of mending the damage that racial violence (of all kinds) has done to people. She stated,

"I've learned that if you have a gift, you have to share it. And this is a time when we need a lot of inspiration and healing. When you go through (what I did), you really want to transform it into something more positive. It's not just about my journey, it's a very big journey, for people of all races."

I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Conrad finally perform and receive the recognition that she deserved at the University of Texas at Austin. If things have changed to such a degree at the University that we have the luxury of forgetting what Black people experienced and lived through in order to attend the state's flagship university, Ms. Conrad's story should remind us that we should never forget. Afterward I was able to meet her in person and she is divine. Personally, I was so struck by this women's dignity and grace in the face of so much bigotry and violence. In spite of living in a world that told her she would never be an opera singer for no other reason than being a Black woman, she defied them all and dared to create beauty when confronted with the ugliness of racial discrimination. She may not have been taking it to the streets but in her own way she fought to create a place in this world for Black women committed to the work of creating beauty. I think that's something to be proud of.

Thank you Ms. Conrad, you're amazing.