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Film Brings Barbara Smith Conrad’s Inspiring Story to a New Generation

Giving News

By Jamey Smith

A young Barbara Smith. She added her father's first name, Conrad, to hers when she began singing professionally in 1959.

A young Barbara Smith. She added her father's first name, Conrad, to hers when she began singing professionally in 1959.

It was a significant chapter in the University’s history — and one that many of today’s students and younger alumni aren’t familiar with. That’s one reason the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History drew on its archives to help produce a new film about it.

Made possible by AT&T and other Briscoe Center donors, When I Rise is a potent documentary about Distinguished Alumna Barbara Smith Conrad, who came to UT as a gifted music student hoping to develop her considerable talents and explore a world beyond her small-town East Texas upbringing. Instead she found herself the subject of national headlines as a target of racial prejudice.

Cast in Dido and Aeneas opposite a white male classmate in 1957, the year after UT’s undergraduate integration began, the young mezzo-soprano was expelled from the production when then-president Logan Wilson caved into pressure from members of the Texas Legislature.

The story has been told before, and in recent years Conrad has returned to campus from her New York City home to perform, teach master classes, and work with the Briscoe Center on its American Spirituals initiative. But even to those already familiar with the events, the full extent of the bigotry she endured at the University is shocking. As the film illustrates, it was decades before she was able to truly make peace with what happened.

A voice that would not be denied: Conrad in a 1976 Cincinnati Opera production of Aida.

A voice that would not be denied: Conrad in a 1976 Cincinnati Opera production of Aida.

There are poignant moments when Conrad, having long since ascended to the heights of her field at the Metropolitan Opera and on other stages around the world, recounts episodes of being threatened and even spit upon by classmates. Friends and contemporaries, including Harley Clark, BA ’57, MA ’60, JD ’62, describe the tumultuous race relations on campus in the late 1950s. Hundreds rallied against discrimination, but the atmosphere was overwhelmingly hostile to students of color.

After the story broke, national figures such as Sidney Poitier and Eleanor Roosevelt voiced their support for Conrad; Harry Belafonte offered to pay for her to attend another university. Even so, she chose to complete her UT education. As the film makes clear, Conrad, BM ’59, is no quitter. “In the world of performing arts,” she tells the camera at one point, “it’s called survival.”

When I Rise was directed by Austin’s Mat Hames, whose previous work includes Last Best Hope, about the Belgian Resistance in World War II, and Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars. Hames also directed and produced the 13-part series State of Tomorrow. That Emmy winner, which focused on cutting-edge research at UT and other top Texas universities, aired on Texas PBS stations and was distributed to K-12 schools throughout the state.

So how can you see When I Rise? A packed Paramount Theatre was the jubilant setting for its world premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2010, and it’s now making the rounds at other festivals. It was an official selection at the Dallas International Film Festival in April and at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in May.

Coming full circle, Conrad makes an emotional 2009 visit to the Texas Capitol.

Coming full circle, Conrad makes an emotional 2009 visit to the Texas Capitol.

Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center — and executive producer of the film — says he and everyone else behind it are making every effort to get it before a wide audience. A broadcast on PBS or another outlet in the near future is likely; meanwhile, campus screenings will share this important piece of UT and civil rights history with today’s students.

“Our involvement with this film is an excellent example of what makes the Briscoe Center unique among history research centers,” Carleton says. “We not only serve as a repository for the evidence of history — we bring that history to life.”

In addition to AT&T’s sponsorship, When I Rise was made possible by generous contributions from Admiral and Mrs. Bob Inman, the Inman Foundation, and the McCombs Foundation.

For more information on the film, visit whenirisefilm.comLearn more about Briscoe Center giving opportunities at the center’s support page.

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