Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004) was born in what was once a predominantly African American town of Boley, Oklahoma to a physician, Dr. Calvin B. Powell and Birdie Thompson Powell (who had 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.
As a child, Perry met Booker T. Washington and sang for him. In her youth Perry took piano and violin lessons.
Although her father was not supportive of her decision to study music, she went to Omaha, Nebraska to study at the Cecil Berryman Conservatory in 1929. After her return to Boley, Nathaniel Dett visited her family to ask them to send her to the Hampton Institute, where she could study with him. 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.
In 1935, she went on to study the Tuskegee Institute, and studied with William L. Dawson who encouraged her to compose original work. After Tuskegee, Perry became part of a black teacher training program which was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a mentor and friend to Perry . She began "earnestly" writing her own music during the 1950s. From 1952 to 1954, Perry worked on her master's degree in music in composition at Wyoming University, where she studied under Allan Arthur Willman, Darius Milhaud and Charles Jones.
Perry worked as a professor for much of her life, teaching at the Colorado State Teachers College, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her compositions are classical and "incorporates contrapuntal, tonal, mild dissonance, with some jazz and folk influence. She wrote for orchestra, bands, solo instruments and composed a mass.