By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS
With roots deeply planted in Camp County, the world has truly lost a musical icon.
Born Barbara Louise Smith, Barbara Smith Conrad later took her father’s first name as her last to avoid confusion with another singer of the day. But by any name, it was Barbara Conrad’s voice and her civil rights activism that completely changed the course of history. She died May 22 in New Jersey and was brought back to her beginnings in Camp County June 10 before arriving at her final, earthly resting place at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin June 12. The operatic genius would have turned 80 next month on August 11.
Conrad’s training ground began in the rural, predominantly-Black community called Center Point in the southeastern portion of Camp County. It was there that the young music prodigy, who would later become an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano opera singer, first honed her skills as a master performer. The youngest of five children born to educators Jerrie Lee Cash Smith and Army Captain Conrad Smith, young Barbara thrived both musically and academically from the very beginning.
“This place was always dear to her heart,” said Jimmy Smith, Conrad’s brother who now lives in the Smith’s homestead in Center Point. “Once she became successful later in life, wherever she went, she would make a grand entrance. It was just the way she carried herself. She was always very fashionable—tall and stunning. People would stop to talk to her and hug her and others who didn’t know who she was would watch her and wonder who she was. I wasn’t use to all the attention just being there with her, but she was definitely in her element.”
April Haines, a soprano and Baltimore native, first met Conrad in the early 1980s in Tulsa. Conrad was the lead in a Porgy and Bess production and Haines served as a member of the chorus.
“We became fast friends and then unfortunately went our separate ways after the production ended,” Haines said.
The two songstresses lost touch for more than 15 years until a chance encounter reconnected them in New York when Conrad became Haines’ private instructor.
“From then on, we were inseparable,” Haines said. “I was just in awe of her brilliance and tried to soak up everything I could. I saw her through her highs and the lows. We went through a lot together.”
In the final years, during Conrad’s courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Haines opened her home, for a time, to her longtime friend.
“That was a difficult period for me seeing my friend that way,” Haines said. “But I loved her right on and tried to be there to support her just has she had me all those years.”
Haines, who has been a performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for more than two decades, described Conrad as always a professional and forever a friend. Ironically, the two singers never shared the stage as a duet together.
“Barbara was always over prepared in a very good way,” Haines said. “She was the consummate professional. On a personal note, she was a trailblazer. When you look at some of the things that happened to her, that would have made everyone else bitter but not her. I was always so proud to know her. She was so gracious and grateful. And she was a head turner. When she walked into the room, you knew she was someone famous. She just carried herself in that way.”
“I was always dumbfounded by the fact that she never knew she was poor growing up,” Haines said. “She would often say she didn’t realize it until she left home. She was always taught that education was the way—not the way out—but the way to succeed. She loved Center Point to her core and was very proud to have been a product of a community that gave her such a wonderful start in life.”
Barbara Sanders of Forest Hill knows firsthand about Conrad’s start in life. Sanders recalls her cousin Barbara as one who always stood tall in greatness even at an early age. Named after her older cousin, Sanders remembers her mother, Frankie Jackson, would often receive much-needed help with washing clothes from Conrad. Sanders’ father and Barbara’s grandfather, L.B. Cash, were second cousins who all lived in Center Point. Sanders’ family left Center Point for California when she was 12.
“Being named after her is my claim to fame,” Sanders said. “Sometimes people who are named after someone else may not want to brag about that, but not in my case. I am so honored to have been named after her. I always considered her as my big sister.”
“She was a role model who was completely comfortable with who she was–from the very beginning,” Sanders said. “She was such a giving individual—an incredibly beautiful person inside and out. In her eyes, everybody was important. She truly encompassed what it meant to be a wonderful confidante.”
Sanders once served on the foundation board for the Gilmer Civic Center which was built in 1997. The committee discussed possible local talents to open the location. Someone in the group inquired ‘about that young lady from Pittsburg’ having no idea Sanders was related to Conrad.
“I remember calling her during the meeting and asking what she thought about the idea and if she would consider performing at the opening of the Center to which she replied: ‘be careful what you ask for–you might just get it.’”
And get it they did. Conrad performed at the grand opening and returned several times afterwards even enlisting a 100-voice choir as local accompaniment on one of her trips to Upshur County.
“It was spectacular,” Sanders said. “There really are no words to describe Barbara Conrad in concert.”
Whether performing in East Texas or at the White House or on foreign soil, Conrad’s eventual meteoric rise came at the cost of one devastating setback soon after leaving Center Point.
The year was 1956 and the setting was the University of Texas (UT) in Austin. Conrad was one of a handful of African-American students to make history as the first desegregated undergraduates to be admitted to the institution. A year later, Conrad, a music major, had been cast to play a queen in the Dido production alongside a white male student. After racial threats and opposition from other white UT students and the Texas Legislature, Conrad was removed from the role. Actor and activist Harry Belafonte even offered to relocate her to any school she chose, but Conrad chose to remain and graduated from UT in 1959.
Fifty years later, in 2009, the Texas Legislature formally apologized to Conrad for their part in her dismissal from the UT production. A year later, Sanders and other family members appeared in the 2010 award-winning documentary, “When I Rise” produced by the University of Texas. The film chronicled not only Conrad’s life and legacy, but also the heartbreaks she had endured along the way.
“She came full circle and so did Texas,” Sanders said. “They had to come face-to-face with what they had done. I think they wanted to right a wrong. What some intended for her downfall back then actually catapulted her to what she became. Ironically, you almost feel sorry for the people who wronged her because all it did was made her find out every inch of what she had inside. No doubt about it. She definitely got the better end of that stick.”
At the Camp County memorial service, family and friends quietly gathered inside of the Center Point Baptist Church to remember the woman who always remembered her beginnings. The service, which included several tributes, also featured a proclamation presented by Pittsburg Mayor Shawn Kennington and a soul-stirring eulogy by local minister Darnell Thomas. As a way to forever be connected to the community where she got her start, the family also left with a piece of Center Point before journeying to the Texas State Cemetery.
“The Austin service was a beautifully loving, touching and befitting close for Ms. Barbara’s final journey home to Center Point, Texas to her final resting place at the historic Texas State Cemetery in Austin,” said Bettye-Makeda Neal, who is one of Conrad’s cousin. “At the request of her nephew, Peter Moore, soil from the graves of Ms. Barbara’s departed love ones, interned in Center Point, was placed inside her casket. Now, the spiritually rich soil of Center Point will forever rest with Ms. Barbara in Austin. When you visit the Texas State Cemetery, you will see that the towering Stephen F. Austin statue is pointing at Ms. Barbara’s resting place. “
“They really rolled out the proverbial red carpet in Austin,” Sanders said. “From the interment service to the reception at UT, it was all such a beautiful tribute to her.”