George, Zelma Watson (1904–1994)

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George, Zelma Watson (1904–1994)

African-American sociologist, musicologist, and performer. Born in Hearne, Texas, in 1904; died in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 1994; graduated from the University of Chicago; master's and doctoral degrees in sociology at New York University; studied voice at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago; studied pipe organ at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

A Texas native and a graduate of the University of Chicago, Zelma Watson George was a trained soprano and organist. She worked briefly as a social worker in Evanston, Illinois, before becoming a probation officer in Chicago. From 1932 to 1937, she was dean of women at Tennessee State University, then helped organize the Avalon Community Center in Los Angeles. During her early career, George also lectured on the cultural contributions of African-Americans, and in 1935 she began research on black music. With the aid of a Rockefeller grant in 1942, she traveled the country collecting data from libraries and private collections. The result of her research, "A Guide to Negro Music," an annotated bibliography, served as her thesis for a doctoral degree in sociology from New York University. She later donated the compendium of over 12,000 titles to Howard University.

In 1949, George sang the lead in a black production of The Medium, a folk opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, at the dedication of the Karamu Lyric Theatre in Cleveland. Upon hearing of her performance, Menotti brought her to New York to recreate the role for the 1950 production of the opera at the Arena Stage in the Hotel Edison. Becoming the first black woman to take a white role on Broadway, George was praised by the critics. "She has great personal force," wrote Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times. "She sings with power and imagination."

In 1960, George was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the only African-American member of the U.S. delegation to the 15th General Assembly of the United Nations. In the late 1960s, she was executive director of the Job Corps center in Cleveland. She remained a resident of Cleveland until her death in 1994.