The courage of Sarah Reese ’71 H ’14 would lift generations. Her brilliance would span continents.
By Sarita Chourey
Someone had called security. The reason for the concern? A teenage girl had shown up with her mother, her voice teacher, high school principal, and a member of the Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. The group had come to support the girl in her crucial moment –her voice audition before Furman’s music faculty.
The teen’s name was Sarah Reese ’71 H ’14, and she had an appointment. But no one was expecting a Black student.
“Furman had no idea who was coming to dinner,” says Reese, who grew up in rural Pelzer, South Carolina, and graduated from Furman in 1971. “Here was this little brown girl who had no idea of the magnitude of this. It means even more to me now than it did then that people had fought for me to have an audition.”
Reese would become a world-famous opera singer, making her New York debut in 1981 and performing with some of the world’s most famous orchestras and conductors, becoming the principal artist with the New York Metropolitan Opera and artist-in-residence at the Opera Company of Boston.
But first, while earning her music degree, she would do the solitary, heavy work of forging racial progress in Greenville, South Carolina.
‘Some kind of lonely’
Reese was one of Furman’s first Black students, her time overlapping with Joseph Vaughn’s ’68. Vaughn was Furman’s first Black undergraduate after desegregation in 1965.
But their bond could not protect Reese from the stares of white students, the insults from a professor (“nincompoop”), and the refusal of students to room with her after her first roommates –progressive white women–had graduated after her first year. Reese and her roommates had attended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral together in Georgia, and even slept on the ground during the trip. After those roommates graduated, however, Reese was left to live in a room alone next to the house mother’s quarters. Reese, Vaughn and Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M ’75 H ’14, another Black student, were “the three musketeers.”
“It was some kind of lonely when Lillian wasn’t on campus or Joe was busy,” says Reese. “Most of the time, 95% of the time, you’re sitting there alone, and nobody wanted to sit with you. Or they’d kind of sit with you and leer.”
And there was the “brick in the hat.”
“Cowards,” says Reese, would run by and hurl bricks at Reese’s and the other Black students’ heads in the dark when the friends gathered in the Rose Garden after dinner.
“Those were the times of our society, not just Furman,” she says. “At the same time, the education I got from Furman, musically, I could compete with anybody anywhere, and academically.”
‘A special bond’
In the moments when Reese was bent by the weight of the time, it was Vaughn who stood her back up.
“Joe was always there, always,” she says. “If I said, ‘I am going to quit, I can’t stand it any longer,’ he’d say, ‘You have to (stay). You’re not going anywhere.’”
Vaughn was their big brother, their rock, protector and “papa.” In 1968, after the Orangeburg Massacre, Vaughn, Reese and Flemming demonstrated in downtown Greenville, part of a march he had organized.
That day, a man tried to run them over with his car, leaving the friends stunned.
On ordinary days, Flemming and Reese would go to Furman football games to cheer on Vaughn, a cheerleader, who made up his own infectious cheer but never hoisted the white female cheerleaders. Vaughn, today a Furman icon, died in 1991.
‘A luscious voice with dramatic bite’
Reese was, quite simply, a star.
She was “a young soprano who has it all –a luscious voice with dramatic bite and astonishing coloratura agility, disarmingly natural musical instincts and a compelling stage presence,” concluded The New York Times in September of 1981.
Nearly two years later, the Times described her as “a wonderfully pure, sure soprano that seemed to grow in beauty and confidence as the afternoon progressed,” as Fevronia in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia.”
In 1983, Reese might have stepped out–her voice soaring–of the composer’s own imagination. The Times declared that her role in “Turandot” was “as Puccini envisioned her.”
“Her melodic lines were fluid and supplicatory, but no less assured or compelling in her fine accusatory aria of the final act; earlier, ‘Signora, ascolta,’ was touchingly compassionate,” said the Times. And later: “Miss Reese’s performance seemed much larger than its deliberately small-scaled sensitivity.”
She was the featured soloist on the 1993 Grammy Award-winning recording, “Prayers of Kierkegaard” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and made her Carnegie Hall debut with The American Composers Orchestra in 1995. Reese performed in Switzerland, England, France, Monte Carlo, Italy and Russia, and traveled to Toulouse, Strasbourg, Dusseldorf and Cologne with the Festival Orchestra of Sofia Bulgaria, as the soprano soloist in Verdi’s “Requiem” and Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” She also performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
In her later years, Reese returned to the swaying loblolly pines of rural South Carolina. She taught music at Pendleton High School and chaired the school’s fine arts department. Reese was named a Yale Distinguished Music Educator in 2013, and the following year, Furman conferred upon her a Doctor of Humanities.
In early 2020, Reese and Flemming attended the homecoming basketball game at the invitation of Furman President Elizabeth Davis. The national anthem played as Reese, in tears, looked out across the stands.
“We just wept to see so many African Americans joyfully frolicking with other human beings without duress,” she remembers. Such a sight would have been unimaginable when she was a student.
Reese fills with emotion when she recalls her experiences at Furman.
“I love Furman. Furman is the reason,” she says, nearly whispering, as her thoughts travel back. “We grew up at Furman.”