King award winner promotes respect for diversity

January 16, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

The day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, a young Corita Melton was finishing college classes and returning home to Baltimore with her fiance, Wilfred, to visit family.

Police stopped the two as they stepped off a Greyhound bus, en route to her parents' house. There was a curfew -- no one was allowed on the street after dark because police feared riots.

"It was a sad commentary" on Dr. King's death, said the Running Brook Elementary School assistant principal, whose married name is Corita Oduyoye.

Tonight, Mrs. Oduyoye will be one of three to receive the county's Living the Dream Award, given to local residents who have made significant contributions to the realization of the slain civil right leader's dreams.

The presentation will take place during a 7 p.m. celebration at Centennial High School to mark the anniversary of Dr. King's birth. The annual celebration is sponsored by the Howard County Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission.

The other two recipients are Melvin Bilal, the president of Security America Services, who won for business, and Robert Krasnansky, an Ellicott City resident who organized a statewide conference on conflict resolution. Mr. Krasnansky won in the community service category.

"It's quite an honor," Mrs. Oduyoye said of the award she is receiving for her work in education. "This particular award is very important to me because, in many ways, I live the way Dr. King lived."

Parents at Running Brook, where she has been assistant principal for two years, agreed, saying she embodies Dr. King's spirit of patience and nonviolence.

"She's very giving," said Kathleen Leatherwood, who nominated Mrs. Oduyoye for the award. "She just carries everything through to life. She quietly goes about her ways and acts [with] the kindness and the belief that all of our students are valuable human beings."

Mrs. Oduyoye, 48, moved to Howard County about 20 years ago, taking a job at Stevens Forest Elementary School. She became an assistant principal at Running Brook two years ago.

She lived in a small, segregated North Carolina town as a child and moved to Baltimore when she was 5.

She recalls growing up in a time when black people rode in separate trains, drank from water coolers set aside for the "colored" and were barred from entering certain buildings and eating places.

For a while, she said, she believed she was an inferior person -- that she wasn't as worthy as others because of her skin color.

It wasn't until she got a job as an elementary school teacher in Pittsburg in 1969 and worked side-by-side with two white teachers, one of them Jewish, that she realized people could accept her without regard for her skin color.

"Yes, there are differences among us. Yet there are likenesses," she said in a gentle voice as she sat in her blue-painted office in a bright yellow suit, her hands clasped. "What you find about people is we all share commonalities."

Her experience has taught her that children of different cultures should be able to feel proud about their diversity and should be able to see images of themselves wherever they go.

Toward that end, she has hung a drawing of students of different nationalities in her office in an attempt to make all students feel comfortable when they enter.

"I truly do appreciate diversity, and I respect people's cultures and ethnicity," she said.

Mrs. Oduyoye went into education believing she would be able to accomplish wondrous things.

"Every teacher touches students' lives in so many ways," she said. "We do a lot in shaping their lives, and we do a lot in creating for them a safe and inviting atmosphere."

Outside school, Mrs. Oduyoye is an active member of Jack and Jill of America Inc. and the Howard County Democratic Central Committee. She attends St. John Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, where she is a Eucharistic minister, usher and lecturer.

"For me, that's one of the greatest ways to get my stress relieved -- to do church-related activities," she said. "It's relaxing and calming."

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