On this day in 1903, Zelma George was born in Hearne, Texas.
When she was 15 years old, her father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to Topeka, Kansas. George graduated from Topeka Public Schools and then enrolled at the University of Chicago. She graduated in 1924 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She then went on to continue her education at Northwestern University, studying the pipe organ; as well as enrolling as a voice student at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music.
She received her master’s degree in personnel administration in 1943 from New York University, as well as a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1954. George received honorary doctorates from Heidelberg College, Baldwin Wallace College, and Cleveland State University as a result of her impressive doctoral dissertation.
George then received a Rockefeller foundation grant, enabling her to study African American music. After her study, she wrote Chariot’s A’Comin!, a musical drama aired on television in 1949. Shortly after, she became the first African American woman to act in a role that was typically granted to whites only. After her debut in The Medium, an opera formed at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, she was honored with the Merit Award of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
From 1954 to 1957, George was part of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, as well as various other committees which typically concerned women, youth, and African Americans. From 1959 to 1971, she served on the executive council for the American Society of African Culture. President Richard Nixon named her to be a part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1971.
George served as the director of the Cleveland Job Corps from 1966 to 1974. After retiring, she began teaching classes in the Elders program at Cuyahoga Community College.
Throughout her career, George has received numerous awards and honors, including the Dag Hammarskjöld Award in 1961; the Dahlberg Peace Award in 1963; and the Mary Bethune Gold Medallion in 1973. In 1983, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame.
George died on July 3, 1994 in Shaker Heights, Ohio. In her memory, a community center in Cleveland, Ohio was named after her.