December 20, 2009, 6:20AMView full size
For more than 100 years, two men have represented Ohio in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol in Washington.
They are James A. Garfield and Gov. William Allen, otherwise known as the President and Who?
Garfield is best known as the president with the second-shortest tenure in U.S. history. Less than four months in office, he was shot by a lawyer who apparently was more than a little disappointed not to have been named ambassador to France. Garfield died from infection 10 weeks later.
William Allen was once governor of Ohio. His bio from the Office of the Architect, which oversees Statuary Hall, reads: "He became an outspoken critic of Lincoln and was an anti-war Democrat."
Turns out, it's a little dicier than that.
Ohio's National Statuary Collection Study Committee's Web site reads: "The Ohio General Assembly decided that Allen's pro-slavery position and outspoken criticism of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War make him a poor representative for Ohio in the U.S. Capitol."
Apparently it took only 124 years to decide that maybe it's not such a great idea to have an icon of racial oppression representing our great state in the halls of Congress. Ohio's General Assembly has appointed six of its own -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- to choose a new statue to replace Allen's.
The person must be deceased and notable. So far, the committee is considering Thomas Edison, Tecumseh, Cincinnati Reds' center fielder William Ellsworth "Dummy" Hoy, abolitionist James M. Ashley, Jesse Owens and Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Which brings me to my nominee: Zelma Watson George.
Astute readers will note that one of the differences between George and the others mentioned is gender. Of the 100 statues residing in the hall, only nine depict women. The most recent, Helen Keller, was added by Alabama just this year.
Ohioans have many reasons to champion Zelma George. She had several careers because she had lots of interests and a disdain for obstacles. As she said to me in an 1990 interview at age 86, "I really was many minorities growing up: I was a woman. I was black. I was fat. I was ambitious."
George attended the University of Chicago but was not allowed to live in its all-white dormitories. After earning her master's and doctoral degrees in sociology at New York University, she became a distinguished scholar of black music. She was just getting started.
In 1950, she was the first black woman to take a "white role" on Broadway, starring as spiritualist Madame Flora in Gian Carlo Menotti's folk opera "The Medium." The famous cartoonist Al Hirschfeld depicted George sitting onstage in a wheelchair, her cane poised over the head of a man wincing in fear.
In 1960, George was the only African-American appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In the late 1960s, she headed up Cleveland's Job Corps, the oldest such center for young women in the country.
George was also a civil rights activist. Regular houseguests at her home on East 81st Street included Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. She and her husband, Clayborne, a Cleveland lawyer and prominent Republican, took on racism as a team -- often one restaurant at a time.
They were regulars at the Hanna Theatre, where they were forced to sit in the balcony. Afterward, they would head out to eat. Her husband's standard question was, "Do you feel like fighting the race thing tonight?"
Unless they were exhausted, the answer was yes, and they'd go to a restaurant they knew would refuse to serve them because they were black. They'd ask for the manager, get the names of witnesses, and then Clayborne would file another lawsuit.
In 1960, the State Department sent George on a lecture tour around the world as a "good will ambassador." She continued to be a popular speaker well into her 80s.
She loved to make an entrance, and was never shy about her size. When she was named the first black Miss America judge, the well-endowed George told reporters she was also the first "size-44 judge." She relished an audience's gasps at the sight of her.
"When you do something big women aren't supposed to do, you do it up right," she said, "really making something of it."
It's time Ohio made something really big of Zelma Watson George.