Written by Nancy Baker Jones
Read by Jacqueline Jones
Born in 1903 in the former cotton-plantation town of Hearne, Texas, Zelma Watson became a scholar, civic leader, the first black woman to sing a white role on Broadway, and a well-known advocate for education and peace. As the daughter of a Baptist minister and his wife, she remembered such leaders as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Branch Terrell visiting her father’s Dallas church. The family left Texas after being threatened by vigilantes.
She earned a degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 1924, then studied voice for three years at the American Conservatory of Music. In 1944, she married Clayborne George, an attorney, in Cleveland. In 1954, she earned the Ph.D. for “A Guide to Negro Music,” which catalogued thousands of compositions. Although she worked with many civic groups such as the Girl Scouts, League of Women Voters, and the NAACP, George is best known for having sung the traditionally Anglo lead role of Madame Flora in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium”—at Menotti’s request—in New York City.
In 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower named Zelma George the only black member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1963 she attended a “ban-the-bomb” conference in Ghana, and at age 88, rode her motorized wheelchair in a march against nuclear weapons. Among her many honors was the Dahlberg Peace Award. She died in 1994.
Lucko, Paul M., “GEORGE, ZELMA WATSON,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fge25), accessed December 06, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Saxon, Wolfgang, “Zelma George, 90, Civic Leader, Singer, and Black Music Scholar,” The New York Times, July 5, 1994.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.