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Black Music Heritage: Zenobia Powell Perry, HBCU Alum and Arkansas Native Leaves a Musical Legacy

Black Music Heritage: Zenobia Powell Perry, HBCU  Alum and Arkansas Native Leaves a Musical Legacy

As Black Southern Belles, we understand that we are able to carry various titles and succeed in each of them. From serving as a skillful writer to a creative decorator, Black Southern Belles are able to fulfill each role in ways that many can only imagine. There has been a tradition and history of successful BLack Southern Belles and today we are giving recognition to Zenboia Powell Perry; a true Black Southern Belle that has left behind a legacy for upcoming generations to look for as reassurance. Today, we are highlighting the journey of Ms. Perry and the impact she has on our community. 

Zenobia in The Lion 1950

Ms. Zenobia Powell Perry in her early years.

Childhood of Zenboia Powell Perry

Zenobia Powell Perry, born in 1908, hails from Boley, Oklahoma where she was raised in a middle class family. In her family, education and spending time with one another was always ideal. Perry was often sung spirituals by her grandfather who was apart of slavery years before Ms. Zenobia’s time. However, her grandfather impacted her legacy with his singing and helped create the women we grew to love; Ms. Zenobia Powell Perry.  

Being sung to as a child influenced Ms. Perry to seek her true talents and fulfill her aspirations. While Ms. Perry was growing into a young adult, she was active in finding her way. She took piano lessons as a child, learned to play the violin, and also began to sing just like her grandfather had done for her. At just the age of 7, Perry sanged for Booker T. Washington at a local Boley event and at the age of 11 she won a piano competition. Many saw how passionate Ms. Perry was as a child and was not surprised when she continued to study music later in life. 

Zenobia Powell Perry to the far left and other music students

Life After High School 

1925, the year in which Ms. Perry graduated from Boley High School, is when she decided to fulfill her passion into a full-time study and career. Perry started her educational journey at Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929 and later transferred to the Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University. Once Perry realized that she could be more hands on with her musical background, she decided to relocate to New York City to study with a famous piano player and teacher Robert Dett. After her tenure with Dett until 1932, she finished her education and received a degree from  the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University. 

Zenobia playing piano in The Lion 1952

Zenobia Perry plays the Piano-featured in The Lion in 1952

Career 

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Once receiving an education degree, Ms. Zenobia Powell Perry became a part of a black teachers program,led by Elenaor Roosevelt, and was able to begin her teaching career after taking a few teaching courses at Colorado State College. While teaching first grade, Ms. Perry graduated with her masters degree from Colorado State College in 1945. As a Southern Belle who saw more for her future, she began to teach in higher education. Just two years later, Perry was teaching  at Arkansas Agriculture, Mechanical & Normal College, now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Not forgetting her love for music, Perry used UAPB as a way to tour and spread her music across the world while recruiting for students for the university. As the educational field became secure to Perry, she returned to receive another master’s degree, however, in musical composition. With two degrees, Perry later accepted a position at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she could continue to teach at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and also compose music. 

Zenobia Powell Perry playing the piano.

Legacy

Continuing her dream of creating music, she began writing her own music after her degree completion in 1954. Known as a creative composer and for her ability to write for orchestra bands; many were not surprised when Perry created an opera about the Underground Railroad and Tawawa House. Perry music is known for having a classical tone with a flare of jazz and folk inspiration. Her tradition of singing is reflected in her pieces of work and is often sung in families of the South. While working on music, she was also capable of joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to spread awareness about civil rights struggle and later received various honors and awards for her teaching, composing, and volunteer work.  Zenobia Powell Perry died in 2004 at the age of 95, leaving behind a rich legacy as a famous composer,pianist, civil rights activist, and teacher . She has broadened the horizon of African American culture and inspired generations to come to pursue their dreams and passion through dedication and hardwork. 

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Terrianna Mccullough

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  1. Cathy Lewis
    August 17, 2023 / 1:29 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post and history about Zenobia Powell Perry someone I had never heard about. It’s important for us as Black/African Americans to know about these important people and what they accomplished so that our future generations will not be ignorant of their existence.

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