Zenobia Powell Perry

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Zenobia Powell Perry
Zenobia Powell

October 3, 1908
Boley, Oklahoma
DiedJanuary 17, 2004
Xenia, Ohio
Notable work
Tawawa House

Zenobia Powell Perry (October 3, 1908 – January 17, 2004)[1] was an American composer, professor and civil rights activist.[2] She taught in a number of historically black colleges and universities and composed in a style that writer Jeannie Gayle Pool called "music with clear, classic melodies."[2] Her work has been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and West Virginia University Band and Orchestra.[2]


Early life and education[edit]

Perry with music students and teachers in 1949, including Milhaud and Martens. Perry is on the left.
Perry with music students and teachers in 1949, including Milhaud and Martens. Perry is on the left.

Perry was born in what was once a predominantly African American town of Boley, Oklahoma to a physician, Dr. Calvin B. Powell and Birdie Thompson Powell (who had some Creek Indian heritage). Her family was well educated and middle class.[3] Her grandfather, who had been a slave, sang her traditional spirituals as a child, which later influenced her work.[4]

As a child, Perry met Booker T. Washington and sang for him at his appearance in Boley on August 22, 1915, where he "declared she was a future Tuskegegian."[5] Perry took piano lessons as a child with Mayme Jones, who had been taught by Robert Nathaniel Dett.[3] She won a piano competition in 1919.[5] Perry also learned to play violin as a child.[6] One of her biggest musical influences, however, came from the experience of hearing Hazel Harrison in concert, after which she knew she wanted to study music.[6]

In 1925, Perry graduated from Boley High School. Her father was not supportive of her decision to study music, however her mother allowed Perry to pursue music, sending her to Omaha, Nebraska, to study at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929.[6] After her return to Boley, Dett visited her family to ask them to send her to the Hampton Institute, where she could study with him.[6] However, soon after, Dett left Hampton for the Eastman School of Music and Perry decided on her own to study privately with Dett in Rochester, New York.[6] Perry studied with Dett until May 1932.[5]

In 1935, she went on to study the Tuskegee Institute, and, because of her family's connection with Washington and her promise to study education as well as music, she was allowed to attend.[6] At Tuskegee she studied with William L. Dawson who encouraged her to compose original work; she was already preparing arrangements for the Tuskegee Institute Chorus.[6] Perry graduated in 1938.[7]

After Tuskegee, Perry became part of a black teacher training program that was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt.[2] Roosevelt would become a mentor and friend to Perry and even helped sponsor her graduate studies.[2] In 1941 she took classes at the Colorado State Teachers College and started teaching first grade in 1942.[5] In 1945, she received her Master of Arts degree from Colorado State College.[5]

She began "earnestly" writing her own music during the 1950s.[7] From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master's degree in music in composition at Wyoming University, where she studied under Allan Arthur Willman,[5] Darius Milhaud[7] and Charles Jones.


Perry worked as a professor for much of her life and began seriously composing when she was in her forties.[3] From 1941 to 1945 Perry taught while attending the Colorado State Teachers College.[5] Two years later, she held a faculty position at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), where she remained until 1955.[7] During the years of 1949 and until she left UAPB, Perry toured with Kelton Lawrence as a piano duo in order to recruit students for UAPB.[5]

From 1955 to 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio.[7] She continued to volunteer "on behalf of the African American community" after she retired.[8]

In 1998 she was honored by the University of Wyoming, winning the Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award.[9]


Scene from a 2014 revival of Tawawa House in Modesto, California

Perry's music is classical and "incorporates contrapuntal, tonal, mild dissonance, with some jazz and folk influence."[1] She wrote an opera, Tawawa House, first performed in 1987 and revived in 2014.[10] Perry also wrote for orchestra, bands and composed a mass.[1]

Archival collection[edit]

Zenobia Powell Perry's papers are held at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. The collection is titled Zenobia Powell Perry Scores and Music Manuscripts. The collection as a whole consists primarily of original compositions and manuscripts produced by Powell herself.

Personal life[edit]

In 1932 she was married to violinist "King" Earl Gaynor. While she was pregnant, Gaynor left and she raised their son on her own.[3] They later divorced in 1933. Her son, Lemuel died in 1944 at age 11[3] of a ruptured appendix.[5] In 1941 she married Jimmie Rogers Perry and they had a daughter Janis in 1943.[5] Perry was divorced again when her daughter was young.[2] Perry raised her daughter alone while working towards her advanced degrees and studies and also while also working as a professor.[3]

In 1962, she joined the NAACP to aid in the civil rights struggle.[2]

In 1989 she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and her health deteriorated until her death.


Her most important honors include:

Awards from Ohio institutions for her life achievements and contributions to Ohio culture.

  • 1987 Honored with a Music Citation for distinguished service to Ohio in the field of music at the Ohioans Library Association.
  • 1988 Honored by Ohio National Organization of Women at the NOW Banquet in Columbus, as a part of their second annual women's history celebration.
  • 1991 Inducted into the Greene County [Ohio] Women's Hall of Fame
  • 1993 Inducted in Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame
  • 1998 Named as one of Top Ten women for 1998 by Dayton Daily News.
  • 1999 Woman of the Year Award, Paul Laurence Dunbar House State Memorial, Dayton, Ohio.
  • 2000 Named 2000 Outstanding Senior Citizen of Green County, Ohio.
  • 2002 Cultural Arts Award for outstanding contributions in the field of Music Education, National Afro-American Museum, Wilberforce, Ohio.

Read more[edit]

  • Lanier, Jo Ann (1988). The Concert Songs of Zenobia Powell Perry. OCLC 22150454.
  • Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2008). American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810863767.


  1. ^ a b c Gray, Anne. (2007). The world of women in classical music. La Jolla, Calif.: WordWorld. pp. 207-208. ISBN 978-1-59975-320-1. OCLC 123539910.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2003). "Zenobia Powell Perry, An American Composer". International Alliance for Women in Music. Archived from the original on 3 October 2006. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Pool, Jeannie Gayle (2009). American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 9780810863774.
  4. ^ "Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry" (PDF). Townsend Opera. 2014. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Pool, Jeannie Gayle (May 2002). "Zenobia Powell Perry Chronology". Zenobia Powell Perry Website. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g McBride, Renee (December 2009). "American Composer Zenobia Powell Perry: Race and Gender in the 20th Century (review)". Notes. 66 (2): 313–316. doi:10.1353/not.0.0243. S2CID 162277408.
  7. ^ a b c d e Walker-Hill, Helen (2007). From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 39–40. ISBN 9780252074547. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
  8. ^ a b "About the Dayton, Ohio Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon". The Dayton Ohio Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon. 15 August 2007. Archived from the original on 15 September 2007. Retrieved 3 July 2015.
  9. ^ "A & S Outstanding Alumna 1998 – Zenobia Powell Perry". College of Arts and Sciences. University of Wyoming. Archived from the original on 26 December 2004. Retrieved 2 July 2015.
  10. ^ Price, Deon Nielsen (January 2015). "Zenobia Powell Perry Opera Premiered". Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon. 108 (4): 18. Archived from the original on 1 August 2015. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
  11. ^ "NOTEBOOK". www.ascap.com. Retrieved 10 August 2015.

External links[edit]