Editor’s Note: Black History Month runs from Monday, Feb. 1, through Monday, Feb. 29, this year, and HISD is celebrating with a series of weekly stories recognizing distinguished African Americans who graduated from district high schools. This third article focuses on alumni who went on to have successful careers in the fine arts. The first and second articles spotlighted professional athletes, and lawmakers/politicians (respectively). Others will feature educators and those with careers in radio, TV, and film.
HISD has a wealth of African-American alumni with talent in the performing and visual arts — and many of these distinguished graduates have chosen to share their gifts with later generations of students.
Conrad O. Johnson began teaching at Kashmere High School in 1941, just eight years after graduating from Yates High School. Known fondly as “Prof” among his students, the late world-renowned jazz saxophonist gave up a career as a professional musician to stay in the classroom and direct the legendary Kashmere Stage Band. He also established the Conrad O. Johnson School of Music and Fine Arts Foundation, a program for aspiring jazz musicians.
“A couple of bands came by and tried to get me to go [on the road], but I was teaching,” he said. “And I had a family – four children and a wife – and I didn’t feel like leaving them.”
Another artist who gives back to HISD students is Lauren Anderson (Lamar High School, 1982). When she was promoted to principal dancer with the Houston Ballet in 1990, she became the first female African-American prima ballerina with a major ballet company in the world. And though she retired from the stage in 2006, Anderson still volunteers with HISD, teaching ballet to first- and second-graders in the “Chance to Dance” program (see related story).
Jazz pianist Jason Moran (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, 1993) has six solo albums to his credit, as well as the score for the movie “Selma.” But when he won a McArthur “genius grant” in 2010, he used part of it to work with students at the schools he attended – MacGregor Elementary, Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, and HSPVA (see related story here).
Moran encourages students to explore their talent in theater, photography, dance, or any artistic medium that appeals to them. “Being engaged with other art forms is so important,” he said recently. “I look for a way to work with other creative people.”
Marsha Dorsey Outlaw, who graduated from Lamar High School in 1981, is best known for her murals and mosaics, which can be seen in public spaces around Houston, including Piney Point Elementary’s SPARK Park.
“Art was a good escape vehicle for me, but it wasn’t until after high school that I knew I could make a living at it,” Outlaw said in this I Am HISD interview. She worked with students at Piney Point to design the park, and also teaches art with Young Audiences of Houston.
Other professional artists HISD counts among its distinguished alumni include:
- Joseph Leslie “Joe” Sample, an internationally known jazz musician who graduated from Wheatley High School in 1957. A performing and recording artist for more than 40 years, he had a successful career as a songwriter and member of the Crusaders. In his last interview with JazzWax magazine in 2014, Sample talked about his most successful song with the Crusaders, “Street Life” with Randy Crawford. “For some reason, the Crusaders had a unique sense of rhythm. I don’t know where it came from or how it came. It’s a Houston thing.”
- The Allen sisters, Phylicia Allen Rashad (Yates High School, 1966) and Debbie Allen (Yates, 1967). Rashad is perhaps best known for her role opposite Bill Cosby on “The Cosby Show,” and Allen is famous for her role in the 1980s series “Fame.” Phylicia is the first African-American artist to win a Tony Award for her performance in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Debbie is a choreographer, director, and producer. “In the midst of segregation and racism, Mamma raised us to be independent and free,” Allen once said. “We saw ourselves as citizens of the world.”
- Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams graduated from Sterling High School in 1979. She attended Texas Southern University and became an elementary school teacher before she was recruited as a lead singer for Houston’s Southeast Inspirational Choir. Adams won Grammy awards in 1999 and 2001 for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album.
- Tony Award-winning singer and actress Jennifer Holliday graduated from Washington High School in 1978. Known for her 1981 breakout performance in the Broadway show “Dreamgirls,” she also won a Grammy for her hit recording, “And I Tell You I’m Not Going.” Holliday has experienced some hard times, but as she told NPR’s Michael Martin, “It’ll get greater later, but you got to stick around to see your life turn around. If you don’t, then you’ll never know.”
- David McGee, who graduated from Yates High School in 1981, didn’t settle on art as a career until after he left HISD. “While attending Yates, I was a newly formed Texan, arriving from Detroit, Michigan,” he said in this I Am HISD profile. “I basically had no idea about any direction but that of a baseball player. Painting and art came rather late to my life.”
- Local sculptor Jesse Lott graduated in 1962 from what was then known as Kashmere Gardens Junior-Senior High School (now Kashmere High School). Lott sold his first painting in 1957, which he considers the beginning of his artistic career. He has had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C.; the Oakland Museum of Art; and the Art Museum of Southwest Texas in Beaumont. For pictures and information about Lott, see this link.
Join the conversation! Do you know other distinguished alumni who graduated from HISD schools? If so, tell us about them on Facebook or Twitter. Use the “HISDBlackHistory” hashtag.