Billy Harden (1953-2018) opened doors and shaped minds

Teacher Don Webb greets Dr. Billy Harden (center) then-head of Goodwill industries’ charter school, and Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement. Goodwill launched a pilot program with funds from the Texas Legislature to help students 19-50 receive their high school diplomas.
RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Billy Harden’s imprint on Austin was indelible.

Not just because he was a towering figure in the African American community. But because Billy (whom I’ve known for over 25 years) was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education community.

Billy died this week of colon cancer. He was 64.

Certainly, Billy was an accomplished educator, actor, musician, producer – and loving son to his mother, Ada, and siblings; Roosevelt Harden Jr., Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis.

His reach was long, from Metropolitan AME Church in Austin where he served over the years as choir and music director, to Hollywood through his life-long friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.

Billy, Roosevelt and Tennon attended junior high together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, Billy, Roosevelt and Austin friends Winston Williams and Roy Henry joined Tennon and Davis in Los Angeles to witness Davis getting her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

With many accolades in theater, a career in education and demand for his talents, Billy was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Billy opened doors for so many African American actors, dancers and singers to a local theater community that wasn’t always welcoming to black performers.

He didn’t throw bombs or call folks out. He worked behind the scenes, building relationships and partnerships that moved African Americans from their near-invisibility in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.

Aside from knocking down barriers and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances needed to look like, sound like, or be shaped like, Billy’s efforts went a long way in helping black performers land paying jobs in mainstream performances, so they could carve out a living locally.

“He did that in a quiet, nonconfrontational way,” Roosevelt told me. “He did it relentlessly.”

“My brother had a knack—in a nonintimidating way — of getting people to look at themselves and when they did, they saw gaps in the community that needed to be filled. Billy did everything he could do to fill them.”

In 2013, continuing to build on Vance’s legacy, Billy co-founded Spectrum, Austin’s leading African American theater company, with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson. Tennon and Davis – members of Spectrum’s advisory board — helped get it off the ground.

As a member of the group’s governing board, I worked with Billy, who was executive director. But my history with him goes back to the days when I was a single mom earning wages as a journalist that qualified my family for food stamps.

As I recalled to Roosevelt, “We were poor. I needed affordable after school childcare,” which I was fortunate to find at an Extend-A-Care program Billy ran in East Austin.

That was the other side of Billy: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing academic achievement, Billy opened children’s minds to a world of art and music, believing the two – education and the arts – could transport any child to success.

The homework and studying got done under Billy’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps the most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Billy did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Billy’s program better than they went in.

With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just some: He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University; served as a former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.

The American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes noted that Billy had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff but kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.

I was lucky to have seen so many of those shows. I will never forget.

No doubt some of Billy rubbed off on my sons: Billy Brooks is featured in Austin’s long-running stage performance, “Esther’s Follies.” Mehcad Brooks co-stars in the television series “Supergirl.”

I’m glad Billy’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund that that aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent and support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Contribute at  https://www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.