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The enduring dignity of the civil rights era

Melvin B. Miller | 6/8/2017, 6 a.m.
The country’s racial conflict has provided countless opportunities for individuals, both black and white, to step up. A recent obituary ...
“Man, Trump is so disturbing I have to look elsewhere for good news.” Photo by Dan Drew

Once again Donald Trump has embarrassed America. In a remarkable show of international unity, 195 countries have signed the Paris accord to reduce global warming. Each of the concurring nations has agreed to policies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Trump announced that the U.S.A. would no longer participate in the agreement, a decision also taken only by Syria and Nicaragua. Many Americans are tired of bad news from Trump, but other news stories, such as the obituary on the life of Barbara Conrad, give us hope.

Despite the erratic conduct and administrative incompetence of the nation’s president, political and business leaders have stepped forward with plans and proposals to continue efforts to curtail human practices that contribute to the warming trend. News reports offer evidence that the character and commitment of many of the American people have contributed substantially to the nation’s good reputation around the world.

The country’s racial conflict has provided countless opportunities for individuals, both black and white, to step up. A recent obituary of Barbara Smith Conrad in the New York Times tells a tale of a conflict at the University of Texas in Austin as the college began efforts to desegregate after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Barbara Louise Smith (she later took the surname Conrad to comply with Actors Equity rules) was a talented mezzo-soprano, but talent was not enough to keep her role as Dido in Henry Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas.” In 1957 in Austin, Texas it was considered to be inappropriate for a black woman to play Dido opposite a white Aeneas, so she was removed from the role.

This was not a universal opinion at UT Austin at the time. A young assistant professor, John Silber, was an outspoken critic of the decision. Silber’s opposition marked him as a liberal in Texas, or at least one who did not support racial discrimination. Silber then found himself constantly at odds with the Texas Board of Regents that ran the college. He finally left to become president of Boston University.

Barbara Smith was not without some support. The University of Texas had engaged the services of Almetris Duren, a black professor at nearby Huston-Tillotson, an HBCU, to manage a dormitory for newly-enrolled black female students. In the spring of 1957, Ms. Duren’s nephew from Boston, Jack Miller, came to Austin to compete as a half-miler for Indiana University in the NCAA track meet. She offered to have a barbeque and pool party at her home for the competing runners.

This event breached the color barrier, at least temporarily. The presence of several Olympians — Charlie Jenkins, Ron Delaney and Alex Breckenridge — along with Barbara Smith, gave the event celebrity status.

Barbara Smith saw herself as a racial trailblazer who refused to back out because of an unjust and unfortunate decision. According to the obituary, she chose to continue her studies at UT Austin rather than accept transfer offers. And Ms. Duren became so effective as the supporter of black students at UT Austin that sometime after she retired in 1981, the school named the dormitory and student center in her honor. And in 1986, the University of Texas named a scholarship in Ms. Conrad’s honor, in recognition of her operatic achievements.

With Trump in the White House, headline stories in the news are pretty grim. But sometime there are backstories that can lift the spirit and create the assurance that peace, justice and unity will ultimately win the day.