By Talia Richman
Eleanor Conrad, the matriarch of a Dallas family that broke racial barriers and strived to improve public education, died June 27. She was 99.
She was the widow of Dr. Emmett J. Conrad, the first African American to serve on the Dallas ISD school board. For decades, the couple fought for civil rights and worked in community activism.
She continued their mission after her husband’s death in 1993, stepping up to complete his term on the Texas State Board of Education.
“They taught me a strong sense of responsibility,” said daughter Cecilia Conrad. “Part of that responsibility was that I needed to go to public school, and that they needed to become real advocates to make sure that all of the children in Dallas had great education.”
Eleanor Eugenia Nelson Conrad was born Feb. 14, 1924 in Champaign County, Illinois. One of the first times she was forced to stand up against racism came in fourth grade.
When her elementary school put on a play about George Washington, the organizers tried to cast Conrad, one of the few Black children, as a slave. “I said ‘No way!’” Conrad said, according to a 2015 article in The News-Gazette.
“There were some people who had the mind that [Black students] weren’t all that intelligent, which was really insulting to me.”
She graduated Champaign Senior High School in 1942 and studied home economics at the University of Illinois. She worked as a home economics teacher at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.
She met Emmett Conrad on a blind date and they were married in 1949. Their daughter was born in 1955 and they settled in Dallas that same year.
Cecilia Conrad learned early about her mom’s ability to cut to the heart of an issue –and her speed with a come-back.
When the family shopped at Sears one day, young Cecilia leaned down to drink out of the water fountain. A store clerk grew agitated, telling Eleanor that her daughter was drinking out of a “whites only” spout.
“It’s OK,” Eleanor responded, not missing a beat. “She can’t read.”
Cecilia remembers sitting at home as a child, watching her mother on the news. Dressed in a suit with a matching handbag and shoes, she protested segregation at sit-ins.
When Emmett Conrad decided to run for school board, it was Eleanor who managed his campaign. From their dining room table, she mobilized voters, addressed mailers and organized rides to the polls.
She even wrote a song, which Cecilia can still sing, to stir up engagement.
“We’ll put Conrad on the board,” they’d sing as they stamped envelopes.
Shortly after he won his seat – the first Black person to do so – Eleanor Conrad made history in her own right. She was the first African American to serve as foreman of the Dallas County grand jury.
When the court would bring in the defendants, she would later recall, the white ones were usually dressed in a coat or collared shirt. But the Black defendants would be in a jumpsuit.
“She objected,” Cecilia said. She asked the district attorney to do something about it “so that these young men didn’t come in already looking guilty.”
Eleanor was a talented seamstress, sewing her daughter’s wedding dress and a formal gown that once caught the eye of Stanley Marcus.
The Neiman Marcus executive stopped to ask her if the spectacular dress had been sold in one of his stores.
Friends flocked to her home for the Super Bowl. She cooked her signature gumbo, which was full of crab meat. She passed down the recipe, in which she figured out how to keep the okra from getting slimy.
She doled out other practical advice, too: Never tattoo anything that will eventually sag.
Her family’s legacy is cemented in Dallas, where the Conrad name adorns a DISD high school. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, named an internship pipeline in his district the Dr. Emmett J. Conrad Leadership Program. Thousands of students have passed through it.
“It was named after her husband, but carried on by her,” West said. “She will leave an indelible impression on generations yet unborn who won’t even know her name. She worked to make certain they had opportunities.”
Eleanor Conrad sat on several boards and associations, including the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She was a lifetime member of the NAACP.
“The things she did – and what she stood for – will always be examples,” said Barbara Lord Watkins, the Parkland Health Foundation’s president emerita. “If we look back, we can say, ‘There’s someone who has done it.’ Eleanor would tell you: You can’t go back. You’ve got to go forward.”
In 2018 she celebrated 75 years as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Eleanor Conrad is survived by her daughter Cecilia, CEO of Chicago-based Lever for Change, and her husband, Llewellyn Miller; and grandson Conrad Miller, his wife Shahrzad Zarafshar and their daughter Zara. She is also survived by sister Eunice Rivers and a host of cousins, nieces and nephews, including niece Ramona Suggs Winrow, her husband William Winrow, and grand-nephews William Winrow, Justin Winrow and Nelson Winrow.
Services will be held July 22 at Smith Chapel AME Church in Dallas.
Talia Richman, Staff writer. Talia is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News Education Lab. A Dallas native, she attended Richardson High School and graduated from the University of Maryland. She previously covered schools and City Hall for The Baltimore Sun.