When I Rise portrays the inspiring story of Barbara Smith Conrad, a gifted black mezzo-soprano who, as a music student at the University of Texas, found herself in a civil rights storm that changed her life forever. Barbara had transferred from Prairie View A&M University in the fall of 1956 as part of the first racially integrated undergraduate class at the University of Texas.
Shortly after beginning her new life in Austin, Barbara’s innate musical talent attracted the attention of her professors in the School of Music, and she was cast as the romantic lead in the campus rendition of Dido and Aeneas – opposite a white male student. Opposition to the casting decision fueled a racial controversy that traveled from the University campus to the Texas legislature. Mere days before the opera opened in May 1957, University officials succumbed to pressure from a small group of radical segregationists. The Dean of Fine Arts asked Barbara to step down, and a white student assumed the role of Dido. A flood of media coverage ensued, beginning with the Houston Post and quickly escalating to the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and most notably, a controversial article in Time magazine. Harry Belafonte, an entertainment superstar of the era, read about Barbara, called her at her dorm in Austin, Texas, and the rest – as Barbara says – is history.
Although she was raised during the height of the Jim Crow period, Barbara had been nurtured in what historians refer to as a “safe haven” community. Center Point, Texas, was a tiny beacon of culture where education, church, community, and music were the norm, and limitations imposed by the “white world” were held at bay by the community’s nurturing arms. Barbara’s parents were college-educated leaders in the Center Point school system, at the core of which was an all-black boarding school that drew students from across the United States. Her parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all imprinted on Barbara the importance of education and culture. And, within the embrace of her family and tightly knit church community, Barbara had been gifted with a sense of self that would prove to be her life preserver during “the incident” at the University of Texas. This small-town girl, whose voice and spirit stem from her roots in east Texas, emerged as an internationally celebrated mezzo soprano and headlined on stages around the world. In 2009, Barbara returned to Texas, yielding the film’s stunning conclusion. When I Rise is an inspirational journey toward finding forgiveness within oneself.