Texas Women's History Month: Menotti's Madame Flora

Mar 30, 2017

Zelma Watson excelled in many diverse areas of life. She was a scholar, civic leader, peace advocate and the first black woman to sing a white role on Broadway.

Watson was born in 1903 in the former cotton-plantation town of Hearne, Texas. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she remembered such leaders as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Branch Terrell visiting her father’s Dallas church. The family left Texas after being threatened by vigilantes. 

She earned a degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 1924, then studied voice for three years at the American Conservatory of Music. In 1954, she earned the Ph.D. for “A Guide to Negro Music,” which catalogued thousands of compositions. Although she worked with many civic groups such as the Girl Scouts, League of Women Voters, and the NAACP, George is best known for having sung the traditionally Anglo lead role of Madame Flora in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium”—at Menotti’s request—in New York City. 

In 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower named Zelma George the only black member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1963 she attended a “ban-the-bomb” conference in Ghana, and at age 88, rode her motorized wheelchair in a march against nuclear weapons. 

This month, KUT is partnering with the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation to celebrate Women's History Month. Every day, we'll bring you a short feature spotlighting a historic woman, movement, or group of women in Texas.