Billy Harden was an Austin treasure.
Not just because he was a towering figure in the African-American community, but because Billy — who I knew for over 25 years — was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education communities.
Austin School Independent School trustees plan to pay tribute to Harden on April 30 for his efforts helping students succeed. The Austin native died last week of colon cancer. He was 64.
Harden 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 in many positions over decades, including choir and music director to Hollywood through his lifelong friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and business partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.
Harden, Roosevelt and Tennon attended Austin’s Allan Junior High together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, the Harden brothers 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, Harden was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Harden opened doors for so many African-American actors, dancers and singers to a local arts 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 that moved African-Americans from their near-obscurity in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.
Aside from removing obstacles — and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances should look, sound 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, Harden 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 Harden, 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. I needed affordable after-school child care, which I found at an Extend-A-Care enrichment program that Harden ran in East Austin.
That was the other side of Billy Harden: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing education, he opened children’s minds to a world of art and rigorous academics, believing the two could transport any child to success.
The homework got done under Harden’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Harden did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Harden’s program better than they went in.
Mark Terry, superintendent of Texas Preparatory Schools, a public charter with campuses in Austin and San Marcos, attributes much of his success to the Extend-A-Care program Harden ran at Ortega Elementary.
“Most of us didn’t know what Austin looked like west of Airport Boulevard, much less west of Interstate 35. He opened our eyes to life beyond our humble circumstances, taking us on visits to Zilker Park, schools on the other side of town and to Huston-Tillotson.”
With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just a few: Billy earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University and an undergraduate degree from Huston-Tillotson 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 Harden had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff-but-kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were “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.
No doubt, some of Billy Harden 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.”
Austin is fortunate that Harden’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund, which aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent, as well as support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Go to www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.