George, Zelma Watson 1903–1994
Zelma Watson George 1903–1994
Social activist, musicologist, vocalist
Zelma Watson George was one of those rare individuals, who when she saw a problem, set forth on a mission to create a solution. Most often she directed her efforts toward creating a better life for women and children, but she also worked to end racism and racial inequity and offered an example of how every man and woman could best serve their community. George’s efforts to envision a better life for those less fortunate than herself did not mean that she neglected her own life. Her own search to fulfill her goals took her back to college and the completion of a graduate degree at age 50. However, although she was a fine vocalist, scholar, and teacher, it was as a social activist that George should best be remembered.
Zelma Watson George was born on December 8, 1903, in Herne, Texas, to Samuel Elbert and Lena Thomas Watson. Her parents both graduated from Bishop College, and George’s father continued his education by earning a divinity degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. After they married in 1902, the couple moved back to Texas, where both had been raised, and the following year their first child was born. Although her parents had hoped for several sons before they would have a daughter, George would become the first of the five daughters and one son born to the Watson family. The name Zelma had already been selected for the daughter they expected to have after several more years, and although her parents were initially disappointed not to have a first-born son, this new daughter was welcomed warmly into a nurturing family home.
At the time of George’s birth, her father was the principal at Herne Academy, a boarding school for the children of middle-class black families; her mother was a teacher at the same school. However, George’s father received his first ministry very quickly, and the family moved to Palestine, Texas, while George was still an infant. As a Baptist minister, George’s father moved the family a series of times as he was transferred to different parishes, first in Texas but later in Arkansas. These frequent moves caused only a slight disruption in George’s education, since their mother home schooled her and her siblings until the sixth grade. In 1912 the family moved back to Texas, where the nine-year-old
At a Glance…
Born on December 8, 1903, in Herne, TX; died on July 3, 1994, in Cleveland, OH; married Baxter Duke, 1937 (divorced 1942); married Clayborne George, 1944. Education: University of Chicago, PhD, sociology, 1924; Northwestern University, course work in organ, 1924-26; American Conservatory of Music, certificate in voice, 1928; New York University, MA, public administration, 1943, PhD, sociology and intercultural relations, 1954; Western Reserve University, course work in music, 1950s.
Career: Associated Charities of Evanston, IL, social case worker, 1924-25; Juvenile Court in Chicago, probation officer, 1925-30; Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, dean of women and director of personnel administration, 1932-37; Avalon Community Center in Los Angeles, executive director, 1937-42; Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, advisor, 1954-57; United Nations, delegate, 1960; Danforth Foundation and W. Colston Leigh Bureau, visiting lecturer, 1964-67; Cleveland Job Corps Center for Women, executive director, 1966-74; Elder’s Program, Cuyahoga Community College, adjunct instructor, mid-1980s.
Selected awards: Los Angeles County Coordinating Council’s Community Service Award, 1942; Dag Ham-marskjold Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of World Peace, 1961; Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award from the American Baptist Church, 1969; United States Department of Labor Distinguished Citizen Award, 1974; James Dodman Nobel Award in Human Relations, 1985; Lifetime Achievement Award, Black Professional Association of Cleveland, 1985; “Women Who Shaped Cleveland” Citation, Greater Cleveland Women’s History Week Committee, 1980s; the Zelma Watson George Scholarship, named in her honor, Cuyahoga Community College, 1987; numerous honorary doctorate degrees.
George continued her schooling. The time in Dallas was one that George remembered with great fondness. In a 1971 biography written by Rowena Woodham Jelliffe, Here’s Zelma, for which George provided personal letters and family documents, Jelliffe related stories about the warmth and happiness that those days in Dallas brought to George and her family, including the visits from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. These were visits that filled her with pride at this evidence of her father’s influence.
Unfortunately, there was also a dark side to living in Dallas. Prevalent racism and the influence of the Ku Klux Klan cast a shadow over the family’s life together. Yet George learned from her father’s example not to embrace “bitterness and crippling anger.” Jelliffe wrote that according to George, “Though the pain and suffering of it all was very real to her, she began very early to respond to the challenge of it, to learn to swallow the pain and transform it into something sustaining.” George’s father continued in his efforts to fight civil and legal injustice, and in time his efforts were noticed by the Ku Klux Klan, who forced the family to leave Dallas, their home for five years. With only 48 hours to leave, George’s father turned to an offer he had received from another parish, and the family moved to Topeka, Kansas, where George enrolled in her first integrated school, the local high school.
In Topeka the family settled into an area known as Free Town. The racism that the family had experienced in Texas was absent from their new home, and the whole family blossomed under this freedom of expression. According to Jelliffe’s biography, George’s mother began to serve the community as a volunteer, organizing services to aid women and helping them structure their households. She also organized health programs and community and church choruses. The whole family became active in sports, and George embraced swimming and basketball as a means to excel and as a way to fight what would become a life-long problem with weight. Jelliffe’s biography related how George’s father, reasoning that excellence “in some visible way” would silence those who teased George about her size, coached his daughter to excel in sports. The teasing never stopped entirely, but George became an accomplished athlete and competitor, two traits that would serve her well in college.
After high school, the family moved to Chicago so that George could enroll at the University of Chicago. Racism at the university made it impossible for her to live in the college dormitories, but George was only 16 years old when she enrolled at college, and because she could not live on her own, George’s father moved the whole family to Chicago in 1920. In an undated interview with Jim Standifer for the University of Michigan’s African American Music Collection, George recounted that she wanted to go to the University of Chicago so badly because her “counselor in high school told me I couldn’t make it there.” In 1920 racism was still very much a part of university life, even at northern campuses that appeared to embrace equality. For instance, unofficial segregation kept George from singing in the university choir and she was unable to play basketball on the woman’s team; however, her father’s coaching would serve her well, and eventually George was able to integrate the whites-only swimming pool and become a member of the university swim team.
Both of George’s parents were musicians, and she grew up with music as an important part of her life. As a child and teenager she had sung in church and in the choruses that her mother organized, and in Chicago she sang in the church choir and played the organ for church services. George had planned to study opera at the University of Chicago, but her father had other ideas. In her interview with Standifer, George explained that she had always loved music but that her father would not permit her to study music while at the university. Instead, she related that her father insisted that she “get a basic education” before considering music as a vocation. She agreed to get a degree and then after graduation she would study opera in Europe. Still, George did not give up her dreams of a career in music while she was at college. She continued to sing and play the organ but as an outside interest. One other very important aspect of George’s college career would be her involvement in the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority. She told Jelliffe that belonging to this sorority “changed me from a little girl from the prairies into a sophisticated young woman, gracefully taking on the ways of the college.” Her membership in AKA would ultimately become one of the constant influences of her adult and professional life.
George graduated from the University of Chicago in 1924 with a degree in sociology, and immediately enrolled at Northwestern University to study the organ. That same year, George’s father died, and with his death, the dream of studying opera in Europe ceased to exist as a possibility. After her father’s death, George’s mother had moved to Tennessee where she returned to teaching and where she became the coordinator of religious activities at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (Tennessee A&I). George continued in Chicago, where she worked hard to keep her siblings in school. However, in spite of her father’s death and the ensuing extra responsibility that she had been forced to assume, George continued her study of music, and the following year, she began to attend the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied voice, eventually receiving a two-year certificate. At the same time, George began to work full-time as a social caseworker for the Associated Charities of Evanston, Illinois. A year later, she became a probation officer for the Juvenile Court in Chicago. In 1932, after five years as a probation officer, George also took a job at Tennessee A&I. With the move to Nashville, the family were again reunited.
At Tennessee A&I, George worked as the dean of women and as the director of personal administration. She wanted to earn a graduate degree, but at she related to Standifer, she could not do graduate work in Nashville, and so she found another way to accomplish her goals. George applied for a scholarship, and in 1933, after being awarded a Rose Mall Scholarship to help cover the costs of tuition and travel, she began spending the first of several summers at New York University. Nevertheless, it would take many more years before she would eventually complete her master’s degree. George continued to work at Tennessee A&I for five years, but she waited until the last of her sisters had completed college before marrying and pursuing a life separate from her family.
In 1937 George married Baxter Duke, a newly ordained minister, whom she had known since they were teenagers. Baxter’s first posting was in Los Angeles, prompting him and George to move to a small parish, the Avalon Christian Church, in 1937. Soon after their arrival, George began working to develop the Avalon Community Center. She soon became the executive director and managed a staff of more than two hundred workers, an achievement that earned her the Los Angeles County Coordinating Council’s Community Service Award. George also began studying for her doctorate at the University of Southern California. She had already completed a year of study when she applied for a Rockefeller grant to fund additional study in Negro music. By the time that George received her Rockefeller grant in 1942, she was divorced and ready to leave California. Her next move would be to continue the work on her doctorate and complete the unfinished master’s degree.
After she left California, George used the money from the Rockefeller grant to fund her research in Cleveland, where the library system contained many of the original compositions that she needed to study for her doctoral course of study. It was while she was doing research at the Cleveland Public Library that George met the man who would become her second husband. She finally completed her master’s degree in public administration from New York University in 1943, the year before she married Clayborne George, a prominent Cleveland attorney. In the years after her second marriage, George continued to work on her doctoral dissertation as she also immersed herself in the Cleveland community. She worked for a variety of organizations, including the Girl Scouts, the Council of Church Women, the Conference of Christians and Jews, the League of Women Voters, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Fund for Negro Students, and the Urban League, just to name a few of her many and varied interests.
It was in Ohio that George finally had the opportunity to sing opera, something she had wanted to do so many years earlier. In 1949 she sang the title role in an all-black production of a Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Medium, at the Karamu Theatre in Cleveland. The following year she sang the same role at the Edison Theater on Broadway. She was the first to play a white woman’s role when she was cast to sing the part of Madam Flora in a white production of The Medium. Although her success on Broadway led to other offers, George’s husband offered gentle hints that his wife should remain at home. Jelliffe related that for Christmas of that year, Clayborne George presented his wife with ten new housedresses. Although she would not again sing on Broadway, George did not remain at home as her husband had hoped.
Even after the move to Ohio, George continued to work on her doctorate. She took occasional graduate classes at both Western Reserve University and at New York University. Finally, in 1954, George received her doctorate in sociology and intercultural relations from New York University. Her dissertation, A Guide to Negro Music: An Annotated Bibliography of Negro Folk Music and Art Music by Negro Composers or Based on Negro Thematic Material, catalogued more than twelve thousand titles. George never published her work, although its limited availability did not restrict its value to later scholars. Over the years, her unpublished dissertation was often referenced by other scholars as a pivotal study in the area of music.
By the time she had completed her doctorate, George had become more focused on social issues rather than academics. Her mother’s social activism in Topeka so many years earlier had set an example that George would draw upon throughout her life. By the mid-1950s she had become an advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and traveled with the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Services from 1956 to 1957. Then, in 1958, she was appointed to Eisenhower’s committee to plan the White House Conference on Children and Youth. The next year, in 1959, George received a six month grant from the State Department as part of the Education Exchange program. Then, in 1960, Eisenhower appointed George as an alternate for the United States delegation to the 15th General Assembly of the United Nations, where she became the first black member of that delegation. The following year, George received an important honor, the Dag Hammarskjold Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of World Peace. That same year, George also received honorary doctorates from Heidelberg College and Baldwin Wallace College.
During the 1960s George was a popular speaker and lecturer. In her association with the Danforth Foundation and the W. Colston Leigh Bureau, George traveled extensively speaking at many colleges. From 1966 and until she retired in 1974, George was executive director of the Cleveland Job Corps Center for Women, a residential vocational training center. During this period, she continued to lecture around the country, and she continued to serve her community and country when asked. For example, in 1971, President Nixon named George to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Then, in 1978, George’s story was included in the Black Women Oral History Project at the Schesinger Library at Radcliffe College. George sat for a number of interviews and was quite surprised and honored to have been selected. In her interview with Standifier, she explained that she had not realized that there were aspects of her life that might interest people. The five days that she spent with the people from Radcliffe made her think about writing an autobiography, because she wanted to document some of the things that she had done. In part she wanted to tell young people that they should “live as full a life as you can and you reach out for as many kinds of experiences and skills as you can get.” George believed that no experience was wasted, and that some day, even if only in the distant future, these experiences would be of use.
In the last dozen years of her life, George received many awards, but one honor in particular seemed to exemplify what George represented. So many of her efforts had been directed at helping women and children that a shelter named for her efforts was an appropriate way to honor her work. In 1987 the Zelma George Shelter for homeless women and children was opened in Cleveland. In her 1994 obituary, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted an earlier interview, in which George related that many women who were trying to call the shelter would inadvertently call her at home. She passed along the correct phone number but also took the time to offer words of assistance when needed. Even in her retirement, George could not ignore those who needed help.
As her life neared its end, George suffered from many illnesses, but she remained active. She wheeled around in her motorized chair and continued to be a visible part of the Cleveland community. She also continued to receive many honors, including the James Dodman Nobel Award in Human Relations in 1985 and the Lifetime Achievement Award, from the Black Professional Association of Cleveland, also in 1985. That same year, George was honored with the “Women Who Shaped Cleveland” Citation from the Greater Cleveland Women’s History Week Committee. Yet another honor occurred in 1987 when a scholarship in George’s name was established at Cuyahoga Community College. This scholarship, which honors her work as a Cuyahoga Community College teacher, national educator, and sociologist, provided financial awards to help college students pay day care costs for their children. George died on July 3, 1994. She was 90 years old. Even in death, though, the honors continued. In June of 1997, a new community center in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Cleveland was named in George’s honor. Like the shelter, the community center represented many of the things that George had worked hardest to create—a caring community that nurtured families. Through a lifetime of public service, George created a legacy that would live long after her death.
The Medium, Karamu Theater, Cleveland, Ohio, 1949; Edison Theater, New York City, 1950.
Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982, p. 145.
Jelliffe, Rowena Woodham, Here’s Zelma, Cleveland Job Corps, 1971.
Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 393-397.
Houston Chronicle, July 5, 1995, p. 4.
New York Times, July 5, 1994, p. 14.
Plain Dealer, July 6, 1994, p. 10B; July 7, 1994, p. 1A; June 16, 1997, p. 4B.
“Dr. Zelma Watson George Scholarship,” Cuyahoga Community College Scholarship Guide, www.tri-c.edu/scholarships/docs/Alpha/g.htm (August 14, 2003).
“George, Zelma Watson,” Handbook of Texas On-line, www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/ar-ticles/view/GG/fge25.html (August 14, 2003).
“Interview With Zelma Watson George,” University of Michigan African American Music Collection, www.umich.edu/~afroammu/standifer/george.html (August 14, 2003).
“Women in History: Zelma Watson George,” Lake-wood Public Library, www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/geor-zel.htm (August 14, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
"George, Zelma Watson 1903–1994." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/george-zelma-watson-1903-1994
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