Zenobia Powell Perry was born on October 3, 1908 in the town of Boley, Oklahoma. As a child, Perry met Booker T. Washington and sang for him at his appearance in Boley on August 22, 1915. Perry took piano lessons as a child with Mayme Jones who had been taught by Robert Nathaniel Dett. In 1919, she won a piano competition. One of her biggest musical influences, however, came from the experience of hearing Hazel Harrison in concert.
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, at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929. After her return to Boley, Robert Nathaniel Dett asked Perry's family if she could study with him at the Hampton Institute. 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. Perry studied with Dett until May 1932. In 1935, Perry was allowed to study at the Tuskegee Institute if she promised her family that she would also pursue an education degree. At Tuskegee, she studied with William L. Dawson who encouraged her to compose original works. She was already preparing arrangements for the Tuskegee Institute Chorus. Perry graduated in 1938.
Perry worked as a professor for much of her life and began seriously composing when she was in her forties. From 1941 to 1945, Perry taught while attending the Colorado State Teachers College. Two years later, she held a faculty position at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), where she remained until 1955. Between 1949 and until she left UAPB, Perry toured with Kelton Lawrence as a piano duo in order 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. She continued to volunteer "on behalf of the African American community" after she retired. In 1998, she was honored by the University of Wyoming, winning the Arts and Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award.
Some of Perry’s works include an opera, Tawawa House, first performed in 1987 and revived in 2014. Perry also wrote for orchestra, bands and composed a mass. 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.
Zenobia's Personal life
In 1932, she was married to violinist "King" Earl Gaynor. While she was pregnant, Gaynor left and she raised their son on her own. They later divorced in 1933. Her son, Lemuel died in 1944 at age 11 of a ruptured appendix. In 1941, she married Jimmie Rogers Perry and they had a daughter Janis in 1943. Perry was divorced again when her daughter was young. Perry raised her daughter alone while working towards her advanced degrees and working as a professor. In 1962, she joined the NAACP to aid in the civil rights struggle. In 1989, she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Unfortunately, her health deteriorated until her death on January 17, 2004.