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The Freedman and Zelma Watson George

Mar 22, 2023


Maggie Adler, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper

Part of  these categories:: Collection

In museums, provenance refers to an object’s record of ownership. Before arriving at the Carter in 2000, our cast of The Freedman was once a centerpiece in the home of a multitalented activist and public servant in the 20th century.

The sculpture belonged to Dr. Zelma Watson George (1903-1994), a Texas-born diplomat, social-program and university administrator, musicologist, and opera singer whose childhood home frequently hosted Black luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. One of the most prominent citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, George was renowned for her public service nationally and internationally as a member of the Eisenhower administration, a United Nations delegate, and a leader of the NAACP.

A black-and-white photograph of a Black woman and a Black man in a crowded room.

Zelma Watson George with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an undated photograph, MS 5415 Dr. Zelma Watson George Papers and Photographs, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, [Container 44, Folder 3]

Besides The Freedman, George’s collection of objects included African art; Gullah baskets, Christmas cards, prints, and letters from the leading Black artists of the time; a collection of rare volumes of slave narratives; photographs of the hands of Black luminaries; and a life cast of Abraham Lincoln’s hands.

George kept The Freedman on her piano, where she played and sang some of the 12,000 musical compositions written by African American artists that were the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She performed her music for houseguests like Malcolm X and her frequent visitor Martin Luther King Jr. Our Freedman was the fly on the wall for visits from such luminaries. If only he could talk!

I had the great fortune of visiting the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society to look through Dr. George’s papers. As I gained insight into the life of an extraordinary woman, I began to fall in love with Dr. George. I wish I had known her. I read the notes from her neighbors that her radio was often on too loud. I love that she saved the airline slippers that MLK Jr. liked so that he’d always find them waiting when he visited her.

A color photo of an older woman sitting at a desk in a room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Zelma Watson George in an undated photograph, MS 5415 Dr. Zelma Watson George Papers and Photographs, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, [Container 44, Folder 17]

Most people have knickknacks, family memorabilia, or artwork in their homes that they keep for reasons important to them. We don’t know why among her many possessions Dr. George purportedly put The Freedman front and center on her piano. But I do hope that she would be proud to know that it will continue to inspire and challenge the public now and for generations to come.