Zelma Watson George: A Life and Legacy
U.N. delegate, opera singer, speaker, educator, and all-around-icon Zelma Watson George was an African American woman whose connection to Cleveland includes a local skating rink named in her honor and a foundational relationship with the historic Karamu House Theatre.
Written by: Andrea Brazis
How do you summarize the life of someone extraordinary? Any combination of carefully-chosen words and unique punctuation can’t quite cover an extraordinary person’s life. Summarizing their life events and including sentimental memorabilia doesn’t do it either. Extraordinary people are so much more than words on a paper.
George wasn’t a Cleveland native; however, she’s undoubtedly left an important legacy . . .
Zelma Watson George was extraordinary; she was a hero in a chapter of a story that will never truly end. George was an African American woman who served multiple roles in her lifetime: U.N. delegate, opera singer, speaker, educator. George wasn’t a Cleveland native; however, she’s undoubtedly left an important legacy, not only in Cleveland, but throughout the United States.
Zelma Watson George was born in Hearne, Texas on December 8, 1903, to Samuel E. J. Watson and Lena Thomas Watson. In her early childhood, she had the opportunity to hear multiple prominent Black men and women speak at her father’s church, including Booker T. Washington, Carter Woodson, Mary Branch Terrell and Walter White. These speakers influenced George’s thoughts and knowledge regarding the role of Black Americans in society.
Aside from being a classy public figure, she also doubled as a performer.
Contrary to popular Americanized beliefs, fame isn’t everything. Fame frequently follows the idea that celebrities, influencers, actors, politicians and public figures have it easy. However, what isn’t always shown in celebrity personalities is damaged reality. Think about it: no one wants to watch the pauper’s struggles before becoming rich and important. People just want to see the prince, the successor, in whatever fantastical imagination of reality that sparks their interest and slightly flawed beliefs. George was no exception. While her fame is glorious and intriguing, many pieces of her past experiences linger in the shadows of her life.
Growing up as a female African American in Dallas, both her and her family experienced prevalent forms of discrimination including aggressive verbal and physical threats from a variety of dangerous sources. While living in Texas, the Klu Klux Klan predominantly controlled the area. In an attempt to avoid the KKK, as well as various vigilantes, George’s family moved to Topeka, Kansas in 1917, where they would be free from overwhelming discrimination and could live safely and independently. This is also where she continued her high school education.
George’s life was beautifully chaotic;
Shortly after graduating high school, she enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she would further her academic career. At the time she attended UChicago, Black women and white women weren’t permitted to share a dormitory, so she lived with her family all through college. In only a few short years, she graduated from UChicago with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Following her graduation, she attended multiple other colleges to pursue musical interests. She studied the pipe organ at Northwestern University from 1924-1926 and was also a voice student at the American Conservatory for Music in Chicago from 1925-1927. In 1943, George received a master’s degree in personnel administration and, in 1954, a Ph.D in sociology, both from NYU. Additionally, she received honorary doctorates from Heidelberg University, Baldwin Wallace University and Cleveland State University.
She was passionate in everything she did; she had drive and worked hard to achieve greatness.
Following her college graduation, she served as a social worker for the Associated Charities of Evanston, Illinois, as well as a probation officer for the juvenile court in Chicago. She was also the director of personnel administration at Tennessee State University. It wasn’t until 1942 that she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and finally moved to Cleveland. George quickly became an active member and leader within the community, assisting with various organizations such as the Council of Church Women, the Girl Scouts, the NAACP, the YWCA and the Fund for Negro Students.
Aside from being a classy public figure, she also doubled as a performer. She earned the lead role in a 67-night opera, Menotti’s “The Medium,” which took place at the Karamu House Theatre in Cleveland. This community-based nonprofit arts and education institution was founded in 1915 by two Oberlin College graduates, Russell and Rowena Woodham, and was originally called “The Roaring Third.” Their mission was to create a common ground where people of various races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds could come together to share similar interests and entertainment.
It wasn’t until 1941 that this spot was renamed the Karamu House. The word Karamu is actually derived from Swahili, meaning “a place of joyful gathering.” The Karamu House Theatre is currently listed as the “oldest black theater company in America,” according to the African American Registry. Today, the Karamu House Theatre still serves as a popular venue not only for African Americans, but Hispanics and Americans, as well.“The Medium” wasn’t the only production that George starred in; she was also a part of “Power and Imagination,” a Black version of a 1946 Menotti work, which she later performed in New York. Zelma Watson George was the first Black woman to take a role on Broadway.
George’s life was beautifully chaotic; every obstacle she faced, every discriminatory interaction she had, only made her stronger. Eventually, at age 91, she passed away in Shaker Heights, OH. However, George’s rich legacy has continued to thrive and inspire people all over the United States, even decades after her death. She was passionate in everything she did; she had drive and worked hard to achieve greatness. Zelma Watson George not only made history, she changed it.
Located off of Martin Luther King Boulevard, in Cleveland, is the Zelma Watson George roller skating facility. Like many others, the owners were inspired by George’s achievements and contributions to her community. For any skating fanatics out there, this is a prime spot — they offer state-of-the-art sound systems, live DJs, a cafe, and so much more. Their mission is “to make dreams come true by providing the perfect environment for people of all ages, organizations, schools, clubs and groups to have incredible parties for all types of events!”