Barbara Smith Conrad, Singer at Center of Integration Dispute, Dies at 79

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More than 100 students rose in protest. Eight state legislators expressed indignation. A petition circulated, gathering 1,500 signatures. Mr. Chapman was hanged in effigy from a balcony in the State Capitol.


Ms. Conrad just before entering the University of Texas in 1956. Credit Ward Photo, via Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Ms. Smith tried to smooth matters over. “After the first shock and hurt had passed,” she told The Daily Texan, “I began to realize that the ultimate success of integration at the university is much more important than my appearance in the opera.”

As wire services and Time magazine picked up the story, national figures spoke out, including Sidney Poitier and Eleanor Roosevelt. The singer Harry Belafonte stepped forward, offering to pay for Ms. Smith’s musical education at any school in the world.

She chose to remain at Texas and, after earning her music degree in 1959, went on to a successful operatic career under the name Barbara Smith Conrad, appearing at major opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and performing in concert with leading symphony orchestras.

“My heart wanted to go to Fisk,” Ms. Conrad told The New York Times in 2011, referring to the historically black university in Nashville. “But you didn’t run away if your staying could make a difference — it could encourage other black kids. Mostly, it was a matter of pride.”

Ms. Conrad died on Monday in Edison, N.J. She was 79. The cause has not yet been determined, said Bettye Neal, a niece. Ms. Conrad had advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Barbara Louise Smith was born on Aug. 11, 1937, in Atlanta, Tex., south of Texarkana. Growing up, she divided her time between Queen City, where she attended school, and the family house in Center Point, an all-black town near Pittsburg, Tex., that had been founded by freed slaves, among them her forebears. It no longer exists.

Both her parents were college-educated teachers. Her mother was the former Jerrie Lee Cash. Her father, Conrad, served in the Army during World War II and the Korean War. When Barbara began her singing career and applied for an Actors Equity card, she took his name to avoid confusion with another Equity member with the same first, middle and last name.


Ms. Conrad as Amneris in the Cincinnati Opera’s production of “Aida” in 1976. Credit via University of Texas at Austin

She grew up singing in the town’s Baptist choir and at home, where an older brother accompanied her on the piano. She idolized Marian Anderson, the black contralto and civil rights activist, whom she later played on television in the 1977 mini-series “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.”

In 1956, she became one of 104 black undergraduates admitted to the University of Texas for the first time. (The first black graduate students had been admitted in 1950.) “I didn’t grow up around theaters or operas or concert halls,” she told The Austin American-Statesman in 2009. “I just wanted to be a singer. I didn’t know the specifics.”

In her sophomore year, a member of the music faculty heard her singing in a practice room and invited her to audition for the part of Dido. She did, successfully.

As word spread, she began receiving threatening phone calls. Two men attacked her as she walked home one evening to her off-campus housing. “They meant to scare me,” she told The American-Statesman. “They did. But I wasn’t going to let go of the role.”

The prize was wrested from her after an anonymous employee at the university complained to Jerry Sadler, a Democratic legislator from Percilla. At a weekly breakfast attended by 40 legislators from East Texas, including Mr. Chapman, Mr. Sadler railed against the mixed-race casting.

“I mentioned appropriations and as a matter of fact voted against those for the university because they have Negro undergraduates,” he later told The Houston Post. “Two hours after I spoke, Chapman called to tell me that Wilson said the Negro girl would not be in the cast.”

After graduating, Ms. Smith, as she was still known, went to New York, where Mr. Belafonte introduced her to his friends in the arts. Mrs. Roosevelt paid her fare.

In 1965, she appeared as Bess in the New York City Opera’s production of “Porgy and Bess,” a work she revisited in 1985, when she sang the role of Maria at the Metropolitan Opera, with Grace Bumbry as Bess and Simon Estes as Porgy.

She performed mezzo roles with several opera companies in the 1960s and ’70s. After a year with the Vienna State Opera in 1981, she signed a contract with the Met, where she sang for the next seven years. She made her debut as Annina, in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” with Tatiana Troyanos, Kiri Te Kanawa and Kurt Moll, who died in March. She gave her final performance at the Met as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida,” with Aprile Millo and Plácido Domingo in 1989.

She also sang from the mezzo repertoire with leading orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the London, Boston, Cleveland and Detroit symphonies. She was a founder and the vocal director of the Wagner Theater Program at the Manhattan School of Music, which trained students for Wagnerian roles.

In the 1980s, the University of Texas approached Ms. Conrad to make amends, naming her a distinguished alumna in 1985 and a year later creating a scholarship in her name. The university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History later produced a documentary about her life, “When I Rise,” which was broadcast on PBS in 2011.

“She was someone who needed apologizing to, and no one had done it,” Don Carleton, the executive director of the Briscoe Center, said in a telephone interview. Ms. Conrad taught master classes at the school, for which she made several promotional ads, and donated her papers to its library.

Ms. Conrad, whose marriage ended in divorce, leaves no immediate survivors.

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution honoring Ms. Conrad for her achievements. In return, she gave a performance of “Amazing Grace” in the rotunda of the Capitol.

“She believed in forgiveness and reconciliation,” Dr. Carleton said. “She wanted to be treated as someone who accomplished things. She did not regard being a victim as an accomplishment.”

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