Bernadine Oliphint was born in Huntsville, Texas, in 1933 to Tom and Catherine Bolden Oliphint. She was one of eleven children and was raised in the Smith Hill community. Both of her parents were educated and taught school prior to the birth of their children. Her mother retired to care for their family, and her father acted as a school principal for several black community schools.
Oliphint’s family belonged to the First Baptist Church in Huntsville, and both her father and mother valued music. After graduating high school at Samuel Walker Houston High School, she attended Texas Southern University with plans to become a teacher. After earning her bachelors, she taught music at Grambling University in northern Indiana. Needing to further her education in order to teach performance, and drawn to the stage herself, she continued her schooling, earning her masters from Indiana University.
As a young woman, Oliphint traveled throughout Europe and the United States performing as an operatic soprano. Throughout her career, she spoke of her love of Mozart and Strauss, who she felt wrote especially well for soprano voices. While in German and Italy, she worked in some of the major opera houses of the mid-century, and was even featured on a German postage stamp. She marveled at Germany’s appreciation for black opera singers at a time when, in America, the civil rights movement had taken hold. "They figured that, if you made it out of America as an African-American, you must be really something," Oliphant said.
While working throughout Europe, she received many grants to continue her studies there, including the Martha Baird Rockefeller Grant and the Fulbright Fellowship for study in Germany and the G. Verdi Plaque from the Verdi Foundation. She also testified before the U.S. Senate sub-committee hearings on the reauthorization of the Arts and Humanities Act, representing the State of Indiana’s opera houses and singers.
Oliphint never married, and instead devoted herself to performing and teaching. Having taught at Grambling, Fisk, and Indiana University, she retired from Texas Southern University in 2005. While at TSU, she directed the opera workshop and taught many students who went on to work as professional singers, including students who went on to study at Yale and Juilliard. Throughout her career, she also taught and served to preserve historic black music, especially spirituals.
Bernadine Oliphint is now professor emeritus of voice and opera at TSU. When asked how she would spend her retirement, she responded, "I'll do what I darn well please, when I darn well please to do it."