Jenkins Odoms Jr. retired as a master sergeant from the Army in 1980 with awards for having served in the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict. Fifteen years later, he is marching to a new cadence as leader of the Howard County branch of the NAACP.
Elected president in January of the almost 50-year-old local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he plans to make the Howard organization more vibrant and visible.
In the past seven months, he has spearheaded voter registration drives; re-activated many of the civil rights group's committees; published a 16-page parents' handbook; replaced an answering machine with a person at the branch office and is scheduling local NAACP representatives to visit black residents in different parts of the county.
Mr. Odoms said the 1,100-member group has plenty of work to do to improve the lives of blacks who live in Howard, though the county has the highest percentage of blacks earning $50,000 or more in the state, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.
That census also found 7.3 percent of the county's 22,019 black population live in poverty -- the highest poverty rate among the county's ethnic groups. Blacks represented 11.8 percent of the county population at the time.
"We have not arrived," Mr. Odoms, 56, said. "We still have a See ways to go."
One way to improve the lives of county blacks is to prepare its youth, the Guilford resident said. So the local NAACP chapter this week has been sponsoring one-day workshops for parents.
At the workshops, Tuesday through today at the Dora Mack Carter Christian Center in Guilford, parents are receiving tips on how to help their children succeed academically.
Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the local NAACP's education committee, said the workshops,a first for the branch, are intended to increase black students' academic test scores.
In May, the group recommended that the county school board eliminate classes aimed at low achievers and stop making ethnic comparisons in reporting student achievement test results. School officials have not taken any action on this recommendation.
The NAACP said disproportionate numbers of African-American students are taken out of regular classes at their normal grade level and placed in general education classes, vocational classes or special education classes.
A recent school board report found 31 percent of black students were low achievers, compared to 12 percent of whites and 7 percent of Asian-Americans.
Howard schools' Black Student Achievement Program that the NAACP works with suffered a blow recently when the school board chose not to allocate $50,000 in new funds to hire more "academic monitors" to help lower-achieving black students with classes and homework.
Meanwhile, Mr. Odoms said his main priority is to register 10,000 voters by the year 2000 with help from churches and Greek fraternities and sororities -- part of a national voter registration drive by the national NAACP.
Another priority is to increase minority hiring and promotions in the county police department. Mr. Odoms said he met with the department's captain of police training to discuss the issue a few weeks ago.
The department has 41 blacks out of 316 sworn officers, or 12.9 percent of the force, with Capt. Richard E. Hall, the commander of the southern police district, being the highest-ranking black officer, said Sgt. Steven E. Keller, a county police spokesman.
Mr. Odoms also said blacks are not getting their fair share of local government business contracts.
When it began in 1979, the county's minority business program was the first of its kind in the state, attempting to award 10 percent of the county's annual contracts to minorities and VTC women, said Cecil Bray, the county's minority business equal opportunity officer.
Before the program, Mr. Bray said, he only knows of one county contract, valued at $27,000, that had been given to a minority contractor. A year after the program began, minorities and women had received more than $1 million in contracts, he said.
Over the past five years, the percentage of minorities and women getting county contracts has averaged 9.4 percent. Last year, of the $48,513,770 in total county contracts, minorities, women and the disabled received 8.5 percent, or $4,121,378, statistics showed.
"I think there is some room for improvement in the county's program," Mr. Bray said. "I think we've always acknowledged that."
To improve those numbers and promote minority businesses, County Executive Charles I. Ecker established the Equal Opportunity Business Commission last year, and on Sept. 12 the Howard County Economic Development Authority and county government will hold the second annual Equal Business Opportunity Expo at Turf Valley Hotel & Country Club in Ellicott City.
While such steps are being taken, racism and discrimination still persist in Howard, Mr. Odoms said.