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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

GEORGE, ZELMA WATSON - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

GEORGE, ZELMA WATSON (8 Dec. 1903-3 July 1994) became a symbol of African American achievement in several fields ranging from operatic diva to United Nations diplomat. A native of Hearn, Tex., she was the daughter of Samuel and Lena Thomas Watson. Moving with her family to Chicago, she earned a sociology degree from the Univ. of Chicago and studied voice at the American Conservatory of Music. Later she added advanced degrees in personnel administration and sociology from New York University. After experience as a social worker in Illinois and a dean at Tennessee State Univ., she married and moved to Los Angeles, where she founded and directed the Avalon Community Ctr. (1937-42). As her first marriage ended in divorce, she obtained a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study African American music. Coming to Cleveland to examine the JOHN G. WHITE† Collection of the CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY, she met attorney CLAYBORNE GEORGE†, whom she married in 1944. She wrote a musical drama based upon her research, "Chariot's A'Comin!", which was telecast by WEWS (Channel 5)-TV in 1949. That year George also assumed the title role in Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera, The Medium, at Karamu Theater (see KARAMU HOUSE). She was selected by Menotti himself to repeat her triumph in an off-Broadway revival of the work where, as an African American appearing in a role not written for one per se, she was likely New York's first example of non-traditional casting. During the 1950s George was asked to serve on several government committees at the national level, culminating in a world lecture tour as good-will ambassador and an appointment as U.S. alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1960-61). From 1966-74 she served as director of the CLEVELAND JOB CORPS. Following her retirement and the death of her husband, she lectured, wrote, and taught at CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE. Among numerous honors were the Dag Hammerskjold Award, the Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award, and selection by the Gtr. Cleveland Women's History Committee as one of the "Women Who Shaped Cleveland." A resident of SHAKER HEIGHTS, she died childless.

Zelma George Papers, WRHS.

Last Modified: 16 Jul 1997 11:49:00 AM

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