Zelma Watson George, diplomat, social-program administrator, musicologist, opera singer, and college administrator, was born in Hearne, Texas, on December 8, 1903. She was the daughter of Samuel E. J. and Lena (Thomas) Watson. Zelma’s father was a Baptist minister. She lived in Hearne, Palestine, and Dallas and briefly in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during her childhood. She later remembered the presence of a number of prominent Black leaders who spoke at her father's church and visited her home in Dallas. W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Carter Woodson, Mary Branch Terrell, and Walter White were a few of the notable visitors who frequently discussed issues relating to Black Americans in her presence.
Her family left Dallas when her father incurred the wrath of some White Dallas citizens for his assistance to Black prisoners. Threatened by vigilantes, the family moved to Topeka, Kansas, where her father accepted another pastorate in 1917. After graduating from the Topeka public schools, she enrolled in the University of Chicago. Because the university would not permit her to reside in the dormitory with White women, her father accepted a pastorate in Chicago, and Zelma lived with her family while attending college. She received a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1924, studied the pipe organ at Northwestern University from 1924 to 1926, and was a voice student at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago from 1925 to 1927. She received a master's degree in personnel administration from New York University in 1943 and a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University in 1954. Her doctoral dissertation, A Guide to Negro Music: Toward A Sociology of Negro Music, catalogued approximately 12,000 musical compositions either inspired or written by African Americans. She received honorary doctorates from Heidelberg College (Ohio) and Baldwin Wallace College in 1961 and Cleveland State University in 1974.
During the 1920s, after her graduation from the University of Chicago, she served as a social worker for the Associated Charities of Evanston, Illinois, and was a probation officer for the juvenile court of Chicago. From 1932 to 1937 she was dean of women and director of personnel administration at Tennessee State University in Nashville. She moved in 1937 to Los Angeles, where she established and directed the Avalon Community Center until 1942. With the assistance of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, she then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she researched her dissertation and began a lengthy career of civic involvement through membership in such organizations as the YWCA, the Council of Church Women, the Girl Scouts, the Conference of Christians and Jews, the League of Women Voters, the Fund for Negro Students, the Urban League, and the NAACP. She married Clayborne George of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944; the couple had no children.
Beginning in 1949, Zelma George performed in several stage presentations. She played and sang the lead role in Menotti's The Medium, an opera that ran for sixty-seven nights at the Karamu Theater in Cleveland and for thirteen weeks in New York City at the Edison Theater. After The Medium closed on Broadway, Zelma George received the Merit Award of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She also acted in Menotti's The Consul at the Cleveland Playhouse and performed the role of Mrs. Peachum in Kurt Weill's The Three Penny Opera at the Karamu.
During the 1950s she became involved with national and international political issues as an adviser to the Eisenhower administration. She toured with the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Services from 1954 to 1957 and served in 1958 on the president's committee to plan the White House Conference on Children and Youth. She was on the executive council of the American Society for African Culture from 1959 to 1971, traveled to Europe and Asia through the Educational Exchange Program, and served as a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations in 1960. Beginning in the 1960s, she served as a speaker for the W. Colston Leigh Lecture Bureau, the Danforth Foundation, and the American Association of Colleges, usually addressing secondary schools, universities, civic clubs, and corporate employees.
Mrs. George attended a "Ban the Bomb" conference in Ghana in 1963 and attended the first World Festival of Negro Art with Marion Anderson and Duke Ellington at Senegal in 1966. Also in 1966 she became executive director of the Cleveland Job Corps Center for Women. She delivered the keynote address for the first Student International Security Council Meeting in 1969; President Richard Nixon named her to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where she worked in 1971–72. She won the Dag Hammarskjöld Award for contributions to international understanding in 1961, the Dahlberg Peace Award in 1969, and the Mary Bethune Gold Medallion in 1973. She received good-citizenship honors from various civic and academic organizations. An exhibit recognizing her achievements as an "outstanding Texan" was mounted at the Fort Concho Museum in San Angelo in 1974. Riding in a motorized wheelchair, she participated in a march against nuclear arms in 1982, when she was eighty-eight. Zelma George was a Baptist and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority She died in Cleveland on July 3, 1994.