Conrad, who was born Barbara Smith, entered the University of Texas in 1956, which was the first year that African American students were allowed to attend the school. The next year, Conrad (who is African American) was cast in an opera production at the University of Texas (Austin), and was slated to sing opposite a white, male student in a performance of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Outraged segregationists in the Texas legislature threatened to withhold state money from the University, and Conrad's role was subsequently filled by a white student.
Today, 73-year-old Conrad is the subject of a PBS "Independent Lens" documentary titled, "When I Rise," which details this personal and painful story of the racism faced by a talented young, American student five decades ago. When Conrad was selected to play Dido (the Queen of Carthage), many locals were outraged. One white man spat in her face, and she even received death threats (12. Hard Times).
Born in the all-black small town of Center Point, Texas, Conrad grew up with big dreams. She had been inspired by seeing Marian Anderson sing (2. An Early Sense of Direction), and by the importance of church among the members of her community (3. Belief in the Unbelievable).
When Conrad found herself dropped from her school's opera production, the resulting publicity opened doors beyond even her imagination. Harry Belafonte heard about the incident, offered to pay her tuition to any other school she chose, and then told Ms. Conrad, "...let's turn your experience into a triumph." He brought her to New York City and introduced her to powerful people in the performing world (4. Supportive Someone). And former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a check for $5,000, and arranged for the National Urban League to support the young singer.
Conrad -- who admits "I was just that stubborn" -- chose to return to Austin, and graduated in 1959 before returning to New York and playing Bess in a production of "Porgy and Bess" by the Metropolitan Opera. Although she never became as successful as Kathleen Battle or Leontyne Price (who had also been forced to transcend racism), Conrad remained both popular and admired for her talent. She performed in Europe and South America and had contracts with both The Vienna State Opera and The Met. In 1995, she sang for Pope John Paul II in New Jersey (8. Turning No Into Yes).
Today, she lives in a large Upper West Side apartment and gives master classes to other performers. She is the vocal director as well as a founder of Manhattan's Wagner Theater Program.