Furman to honor Sarah Reese and Lillian Brock Flemming
Furman University will honor Sarah Reese ’71 H’14 and Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M’75 H’14 with permanent displays on campus to recognize their lifelong achievements and to invite all who come to Furman to be inspired by their lives.
The honors are a result of recommendations from the Task Force on Slavery and Justice’s “Seeking Abraham” report and the Board of Trustees’ Special Committee to recognize Reese and Flemming’s immense contributions to Furman and the broader community.
Reese and Flemming were among the first Black students to enroll at Furman after the university desegregated in 1965. At that time, Flemming, Reese and Joseph Vaughn ’68, the first Black undergraduate student, drew strength and solace from each other’s friendship. The college students pursued their degrees while fighting for racial equality in historic moments, such as the protest of the Orangeburg Massacre, and in the everyday, casual instances of racism they experienced on campus in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
A brilliance that could not be denied
“In considering ways to honor Sarah, we were drawn repeatedly to her profound musical talent and achievements and her impact on opera,” said the members of a committee formed to provide specific recommendations for honoring Reese and Flemming.
“Furman’s Lyric Theatre will be named for Sarah Reese as a permanent, public recognition of Sarah’s profound gifts and influence.”
The university also will commission a portrait of Reese to display in the Music Library, accompanied by a plaque containing a biographical sketch.
When Reese was growing up in Pelzer, South Carolina, she would sing in the woods, causing neighbors to talk about the young girl’s remarkable voice in the grocery store. Reese would become an internationally known opera singer. But before she enchanted audiences across the world, she played a central role in bringing racial justice to Furman University after desegregation.
At a time when Black opera singers faced even greater barriers, she made her New York debut in 1981. Shortly afterward, The New York Times described her as “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.” It was just one of the many celebratory reviews Reese would receive throughout her career.
Reese was named principal artist with the New York Metropolitan Opera and artist-in-residence at the Opera Company of Boston. She was the featured soloist on the 1993 Grammy Award-winning recording, “Prayers of Kierkegaard’’ with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1995, she gave her Carnegie Hall debut with The American Composers Orchestra in 1995 and played various roles including the priestess in “Aida” and Musetta in “La Boheme” and performed with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors.
In her later years, Reese came home to South Carolina, where she fostered talent and an appreciation for the arts in countless students as a teacher at Pendleton High School. Reese received Furman’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1992, and, in 2008, she was a recipient of the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center’s “Women Making History” award. In 2013, she was named a Yale Distinguished Music Educator.
To educate, lead and unite
Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M’75 H’14 has committed her life to educating, leading and uniting her beloved Greenville, South Carolina, community, through her service in public education, a variety of civic organizations, and her alma mater, Furman University.
“Lillian Brock Flemming is the living embodiment of this phrase from Furman’s vision statement: Inspiring purposeful living and fostering thriving communities through learning, creativity, and innovation,” said the members of the honors committee.
“Therefor, Furman will create the Lillian Brock Flemming Award, which will be presented annually at fall Convocation to a member of the Furman student body, faculty, staff or alumni in recognition of their work that fosters thriving communities.”
Flemming has served on the Greenville City Council since 1981 and devoted her professional life to public education. After 46 years of service to Greenville County Schools, she retired in 2017. She was first a high school mathematics teacher and later, a professional employment recruiter. She is a past president of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, past president of Greenville Blue Star Mothers-Chapter 3, past board chair of Southernside Block Partnership, Inc., and a charter member of the West End Lions Club.
A former Furman trustee, Flemming received the university’s Gordon L. Blackwell Alumni Service Award and the Richard Furman Baptist Heritage Award, in addition to the United Negro College Fund’s Outstanding Service Award. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the Upstate and one of the 50 Most Influential People in Greenville three times.
The university will commission a portrait of Flemming to be hung in a prominent place on campus, accompanied by a biographical sketch of her life and accomplishments.