From the archives: The cast change

Editor’s note: The following editorial first ran in The Daily Texan on May 8, 1957, written by Nancy McMeans, then editor-in-chief. McMeans must have known she had a national news story on her hands shortly after a talented African-American UT music female student was cast in a production of the opera “Dido and Aeneas” in a romantic role opposite a white male classmate. Because of her race, the female student, Barbara Smith (now Smith-Conrad), was expelled from the production after then-UT President Logan Wilson bowed to pressure from racially prejudiced Texas legislators. Subsequently, Conrad went on to have a world-renowned career as an opera singer. The story of her treatment at UT was the subject of a film produced in 2010, “When I Rise,” which was screened by the Texas Independent Film Network last night. This editorial captures a moment in history when some students at UT first began to realize that their belief in equality might prevail over the segregationist ones of the legislators and administrators. 

It all began when Barbara Smith came to the University.

She was one of the first group, a minority group to be sure, of Negro students who came to the University as undergraduates.

She wanted to study music education and she took her place in the music school quietly. The only thing we heard about her in the first few months of the year was that she had a pleasing and promising voice.

Then in October, tryouts were held for the various roles in the opera to be performed in the spring, Dido and Aeneas. Barbara, being a music major with a voice, tried out. And the faculty committee which chose the cast chose Barbara for the leading role of Dido. They thought they were to choose the best voice for the part and we are told they did.

They displayed, we think, some striking naivete. While the world of music is noted — among those performing, if not always those viewing — for a lack of distinction on the basis of color, and cast lines are drawn, if anywhere, on the basis of talent, the people on the committee  should have known the temper of the times, and even last October it was no secret that some members of the Legislature were planning the bills now being considered. Even if the girl chosen had the best voice, and we do not doubt that she did, it would have seemed only the better part of discretion and wisdom not to have cast her in a romantic role opposite a white male lead.

The Board of Regents of the University made a courageous and forthright stand when they announced two summers ago that the University would be integrated on the undergraduate level in addition to the graduate level. Texas was the first University in the South to do so.

This much progress has been made. Under desirable conditions, Barbara could have gone on and sung the role and no furor would have been caused. But old wrongs cannot be righted in a day or in a year or in two years. Ultimate harmony would have been best served by waiting and not taking such a step this year. 

They did not, however, and if it was not the most discrete action, it was not wrong.

She received some anonymous phone calls as did Dean Doty of the Fine Arts School and apparently eventually Dr. Wilson himself. According to members of the cast, the calls made the directors uneasy enough that they checked cast members in and out at rehearsals to see that no unidentified persons entered.

About a week and a half ago Barbara was told she would not appear in the opera as cast. Two possible ways this may have come about are 1: An anonymous phone call to Wilson alerted him to the situation and he called the administrative meeting at which the decision was made or 2: A member of the Legislature called him and the same meeting ensued.

Leroy Jeffers, chairman of the Board of Regents, has said that the decision was not made as a result of legislative pressure, and we are inclined to agree with him. 

But whichever was the case, neither seems to be a justification for the action.

Whether Barbara should have had the role this year under present circumstances is a matter of opinion. Once she had it, neither legislative threat, singular or collective, nor anonymous calls seem proper reason to remove her from the role.

If we are going to allow students to compete and perform in areas where competition and performance form a natural part of the work, opportunities for achievement and recognition should be open to all bona fide students. Otherwise, restricting a special group removes them from opportunities we suggest are theirs when we allow them to enroll. It was on the basis of recognizing the quality where they found it that the committee, naïve and lacking in discretion as they may have been, selected Barbara to do the role. As one observer put it , “The poor people, they thought their job was just to select the best singer.”