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The story of a voice

The film “When I Rise” chronicles the life of alumna Barbara Smith Conrad, who overcame racial discrimination to become a world-renowned opera star.

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This story originally appeared in The Alcalde.

It was a dark chapter in the university’s history — and one that many of today’s students and younger alumni don’t know much about. 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 ATandT and other Briscoe Center donors, “When I Rise” is a potent documentary about Distinguished Alumna Barbara Smith Conrad, who came to The University of Texas at Austin as a gifted music student hoping to develop her considerable talents and explore a world beyond her East Texas upbringing.

Watch the “When I Rise” theatrical trailer:


Conrad instead 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, not long after the university’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 in The Alcalde and elsewhere, 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. It was decades before she was able to truly make peace with what happened.

Watch the video clip “University incident becomes national news”:


There are poignant moments in the film 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 describe the tumultuous race relations on campus in the late 1950s. Hundreds rallied 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 education at The University of Texas at Austin. As the film makes clear, Conrad, 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 The University of Texas at Austin and other top Texas universities, aired on Texas PBS stations and was distributed to K-12 schools throughout the state.

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

Watch the video clip “Returning home to Center Point”:


Upcoming opportunities to see “When I Rise” and Barbara Smith Conrad in person:

When I Rise: Film Screening and Performance
When: Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: LBJ Auditorium, 2313 Red River
Cost: Free; RSVP online or call 512-232-3617

Black History Month Concert featuring Barbara Smith Conrad
When: Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Bates Recital Hall, 2420 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: Free

“When I Rise” premiers on the PBS series “Independent Lens”
When: Feb. 8 at 9 p.m., Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 13 at 3 p.m. CST
Where: KLRU-TV/18-1, Austin PBS
Information: Check local listings for show times in other areas; more on “When I Rise” on PBS

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