Zelma Watson George, the Cleveland opera singer who had a president’s ear: Black History Month Untold Stories

These profiles of important and influential Clevelanders are part of a series of “Untold Stories,” presented this week on cleveland.com to commemorate the start of Black History Month.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In 1961, while waiting for a long-delayed flight in the Orlando airport, Zelma Watson George walked into a crowded waiting room and sat down.

A police officer approached the Black woman to remover her, calling her a “Yankee trouble-maker.”

At that point, George stood and declared, loudly: “I am a United States delegate to the United Nations, just returning from a round-the-world tour at the request of the State Department. I was trying to create for people in foreign lands an image of my country as a land where all men are created equal and freedom is everyone’s birthright. Is there no one in this room who will stand for me now?”

Not one of the 75 white people in the room stood.

For most folks in Northeast Ohio, the name Zelma George means nothing more than the moniker on a city recreation center or a family emergency shelter. But George became a symbol of African American achievement in several fields – everything from being a celebrated operatic diva to serving as a U.N. diplomat.

“Dr. Z will never be duplicated. She was a whirlwind of everything I admired in a human being. She touched the lives of so many,” said Dr. Dorothy Salem, who knew George during the last few years of her life. Salem was interviewed as part of a Women in History presentation by the Cleveland Library in 2017.

The two met after Salem found copies of letters George had written to W.E.B. Dubois as a college student.

Born Zelma Watson in Texas, her parents were Samuel Watson, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Lena. The family was driven out of state because of Samuel’s work to aid Black prisoners in the Dallas jail. He regularly met with, and discussed African American issues with Booker T. Washington, Carter Woodson and DuBois, who were frequent visitors to Watson’s home.

Zelma graduated from the University of Chicago in 1927 with a degree in sociology and studied organ and voice at the American Conservatory of Music.

George held a variety of careers over her lifetime, including social worker, probation officer, founder and administrator of a community center, opera singer, composer, presidential advisor, and United Nations diplomat.

She arrived in Northeast Ohio with a $5,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study African American Music in the special collections at the Cleveland Public Library for her doctoral dissertation, “Sociological Implications of Negro Art Music,” for New York University.

Her dissertation cataloged more than 12,000 compositions by African American artists and earned her three honorary doctorates, from Heidelberg University, Baldwin–Wallace University and Cleveland State University.

She also wrote a musical drama “Chariot’s A Comin’” based on her research, which was telecast by WEWS Television in 1949.

She married Clayborne George in 1944. He was an attorney and the president of the Cleveland Civil Service Board. The couple lived in Shaker Heights.

Her husband also served on the board of the Karamu House. As a trained singer, Zelma was invited to auditions to make suggestions on casting for the first all-Black production of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium.” Instead, she won the lead role of Madam Flora and appeared in 67 performances at Karamu, before Menotti, himself, asked her to come to New York for an off-Broadway revival of the opera.

George’s casting was the first time an African American appeared on a New York stage in a role that was written for a white person. Her performance earned her a Merit Award from the National Association of Negro Musicians.

She would go on to star in Menotti’s “The Consul” and Kurt Weill’sThe ThreePenny Opera.”

In the 1950s, George served as an advisor to the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration on various committees concerning women’s issues, youth, and African American culture.

She spent a year traveling the world as an alternate delegate to the 15th General Assembly of the United Nations, and in 1971 was named by Richard Nixon to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This 1986 photo was shot in Zelma George’s home in Shaker Heights. (Plain Dealer file photo)

Here in Cleveland, she served as director of the Cleveland Jobs Corp between 1966-1974. During her tenure, the Corps trained 12,000 — mostly African-American women — to get their high school equivalency diplomas and in job skills.

Dr. Pamela Redden, who worked as a Job Corps physician after George’s retirement, said the staff spoke so highly of her “I felt very strongly that I had to achieve and conduct myself in such a way that would make her proud.”

Redden said she was surprised at how approachable she was when they met. “There was no difference in the way she treated someone she didn’t know or an old friend.”

When her husband died in 1970, George stepped away from public service to write, lecture and teach at Cuyahoga Community College.

“She and Clayborn never had children, so she was especially touched when the city decided to name a community center and an emergency shelter after her,” said Salem.

“I was lucky enough to get to know her and ended up a frequent luncheon guest,” said Salem. “We would make spaghetti sauce and talk about every kind of topic. Seeing her at home, and out in public, you could watch a metamorphosis of personality happen. She would just ‘go on stage’ whenever she had an audience. She was very personable.”

In her later years, Redden said George was “determined to keep living life to its fullest.” Even though she was disabled and confined to a motorized wheelchair, “she never allowed it to stop her.”

“I will always remember the woman, who — until the very end — lived a life of service, a life of commitment and a life of engagement,” Redden said.

Zelma died at her home in Shaker Heights in 1994. She and Clayborn are buried in Lake View Cemetery.

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