Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Sat, 10.03.1908

Zenobia Powell Perry, Composer and Professor born

Zenobia Powell Perry

*Zenobia Powell Perry was born on October 3, 1908.  She was a Black composer, professor, and civil rights activist.

She was born Zenobia Powell in Boley, Oklahoma, to physician Calvin B. Powell and Birdie Thompson Powell (of some Creek Indian heritage). Her family was well-educated and middle-class. Her grandfather, who had been a slave, sang her traditional spirituals as a child, which later influenced her work. Perry met and sang for Booker T. Washington as a child at his appearance in Boley in 1915.

Perry took piano lessons with Mayme Jones as a child and won a piano competition in 1919. She also learned to play the violin as a child. One of her biggest musical influences, however, came from hearing Hazel Harrison in concert, after which she knew she wanted to study music.

In 1925, Perry graduated from Boley High School. In 1929, she went to Omaha, Nebraska, to study at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory. Perry studied at Hampton Institute until May 1932 and studied composition with Cortez Reece at Langston University in Oklahoma. In 1932, Powell married violinist "King" Earl Gaynor. While she was pregnant, Gaynor left, and she raised their son on her own, who died at 11. They later divorced in 1933.

In 1935, she studied at the Tuskegee Institute with William L. Dawson and graduated in 1938. 1941, she married Jimmie Rogers Perry, and they had a daughter, Soprano Janis-Rozena Peri, in 1943. Perry was divorced again while her daughter was young. Perry raised her daughter alone while working towards her advanced degrees and studies as a professor. Perry also supported her elderly mother for many years. Afterward, Perry became part of a teacher training program for Blacks headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, a mentor who sponsored her graduate studies.    

In 1941, she took classes at the Colorado State Teachers College and started teaching first grade in 1942. In 1945, Perry received her Master of Arts degree there. She began writing her music during the 1950s. From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master's degree in music composition at Wyoming University.  Perry held a faculty position at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), where she remained until 1955. During 1949 and until she left UAPB, Perry toured with Kelton Lawrence as a piano duo to recruit students for UAPB.

From 1955 to 1982, she was a faculty member and composer-in-residence at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 1962, she joined the NAACP and continued volunteering "on behalf of the African American community" after she retired. In 1989, she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and her health deteriorated until her death. In 1998, the University of Wyoming honored her, winning the Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award. She died January 17, 2004, at the age of 95.

To Become a Conductor or Composer

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

O Africa, know thou not my call? Know thy rivers not my love? Claim thy mountains not my heart? O Africa! Homeland of my own! I come with my heart afire; I come with... SONG OF INNOCENCE by Julius E. Thompson.
Read More