Incoming president of the Howard County NAACP chapter David… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
A generational change is taking place within Howard County's venerable chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the retirement of longtime president Jenkins Odoms Jr., 71, and the selection of 49-year-old David S. Steele.
The change in officers in the 65-year-old organization took place at ceremonies Monday night at the Ridgely Community Center on Mission road in Jessup, though Steele remains president-elect until his term officially begins Jan. 1.
The contrast in the two leaders' backgrounds indicates the depth of the change.
Odoms grew up in rural South Carolina. He joined the Army at 15, he said, with a cousin's help and without his mother's knowledge. "They didn't ask for a birth certificate then," he said about his early enlistment
He gained education and training during his Army career and came to Columbia in 1978, before retiring as a master sergeant in 1980. He now makes his home at Maryland City, Anne Arundel County. Ever the activist, he said he quickly got involved in local civic and religious affairs in Howard County, and remains an entrepreneur in the construction business, he said.
Steele, a native of Concord, N.C., lives with his wife Robin, in Emerson, the new General Growth Properties development in North Laurel. He's a senior systems engineer for Northrop Grumman and has lived in Howard County since graduating from college in 1983, he said.
The leadership transition appeared seamless, with lifetime NAACP member and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Del. Frank S. Turner attending the ceremony along with about 35 NAACP members and supporters, young and old. Chief county administrative officer Lonnie Robbins was also there.
Ulman said the election of Barack Obama reflected the national success of the kinds of goals the organization has pursued, but there is more work to do. "We know his [Obama's] election has brought out some of those feelings we thought were in the past," Ulman said. "The NAACP is more important than ever."
Steele described it as "a tremendous occasion in my life," adding that he never imagined heading an NAACP chapter. He has been second vice president for the past four years.
He said later that he hopes to "reinvigorate the branch overall," and especially "reach out to younger people." The hard economic times will pass, he said, and "there are going to be great opportunities for everyone in Howard County."
The NAACP, through close relations with county schools and officials, is "absolutely relevant today," Steele said, especially for those adults who reaped the benefits of the civil rights struggles of earlier decades and who are now in a position to give back.
Turner said he has known the Steele family for several years. David Steele is a man who is "very committed, a hard worker, very good at following through," Turner said.
Robbins said that despite their diverse personalities and backgrounds, both men share some important qualities. "Mr. Steele is a solid individual, and I look forward to working with him as he implements new ideas and energy into the organization," he said.
Odoms said he was determined to become active in the NAACP after retirement from active military duty, partly because the organization aided him while he was in the Army, sometimes living in places like Alabama during the early civil rights era. "They helped me in the military," the often-gruff but energetic Odoms said.
Odoms, according to state Sen. James N. Robey, a former Howard County executive and police chief, "was and is a character. A very enjoyable character." Robey said Odoms "will stand up for the NAACP," but he is also "very willing to sit down and talk. I found him a pleasure to work with." Robey said they often exchanged jokes.
C. Vernon Gray, a former five-term County Council member who is administrator of the county's Office of Human Rights, said Odoms' military background showed. "He could get people to do things," Gray said, and was very effective at it.
Mamie Perkins, the school system's chief of staff under Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who was on vacation, said Odoms had a similarly informal relationship with Cousin. If there was an issue, she said, "he'd come in and sit down with Sydney and talk about it. We've had a wonderful relationship with the NAACP."
Odoms got active in the local NAACP and the First Baptist Church of Guilford after moving to Guilford, he said, and became president of the civil rights group in January 1995, taking a two-year break in 2000 and 2001 to be president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches.
Under his leadership, and helped by Natalie Woodson, Howard's NAACP branch was the first in the state to publish an Education Report Card, and the group built a partnership with the county school system. Students whose families couldn't afford school supplies got them from the group, which also pushed for more college-bound students and supported arts groups.