Far From Equal

UT student experienced discrimination during early days of integration

Barbara Smith Conrad
Barbara Smith Conrad (Source: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History)

On the day of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, John Har­gis applied to UT. After registering in 1956, he became one of the first black students to receive an undergraduate degree from UT, in 1959. But while they were officially allowed to attend UT, the experience of Afri­can-American students was far from equal.

The story of Barbara Smith, one of UT's earliest black students, is one example. A talented performer, Smith auditioned for UT's 1957 production of the opera Dido and Aeneas, and was awarded the leading role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, starring alongside Aeneas, Dido's lover, who was played by a white student. As rehearsals started, the controversy about the interracial relationship at the center of the romantic opera began to spread, escalating to the state Legislature, which advised the president of the university to remove Smith from the cast. The story made national news, and Harry Belafonte offered to underwrite Smith's studies at the college of her choice – but Smith chose to stay, and earned her Bachelor of Music in 1959. She went on to become a mezzo-soprano of international renown, and eventually earned awards and honors from the school and Legislature that had treated her so poorly in the first place.

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