Obama’s victory leaves Snohomish man reflective on race

In 1927, Al Jolson put on blackface makeup to play “The Jazz Singer.” The movie marked the transition from silent films to talkies.

In 1927, the Alexandria Gazette, a Virginia newspaper, published a regular column called “Doings of Our Colored People.”

And in 1927, Manuel “Manny” Odom was born in a tiny Texas town near the Louisiana border. Here’s what the Snohomish area man remembers of Wiergate, Texas:

“Black people didn’t have a library. There was a library, but black people couldn’t go in,” said Odom, 81. “I showed up twice. The lady who was the librarian said, ‘We don’t serve coloreds.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘That’s just the rules.’

“The second time I went, I felt maybe she would have changed her mind. It was a white guy there.” The white man, too, turned him away — using a word far uglier than “coloreds.”

More than 70 years later, Odom said those words hurled at a small boy still sting.

Odom never went back to the library. “We just learned to read the Bible,” he said.

In Lufkin, Texas, where he later lived, schools were segregated.

“The football coach who taught us chemistry and physics didn’t know any chemistry or physics,” Odom said.

I met Odom in 2002 while visiting a writers’ group at the Everett Senior Activity Center. Since then, we’ve been friends. Last year, my younger son and I attended a big party for his 80th birthday at the ­Monroe ­Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, where Odom is a lay minister.

On Thursday, I had lunch with Odom. He was in Everett to help cook meals for the needy, a ministry at Everett’s First Congregational United Church of Christ.

With all that Odom has known in his 81 years, could he put into words his thoughts about the election of Barack Obama, soon to be the first African-American president?

Odom never imagined he’d ever see what happened Tuesday, when voters made their historic choice. “When there was a lot of noise about Colin Powell, I thought maybe. We’ll see. And then up jumped Barack Obama,” he said. In defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Odom said, “He beat a giant.”

Odom served in the Navy, worked for the Boeing Co. in Seattle and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Washington. He taught math at Highline Community College and at the Twin Rivers Correctional Center in Monroe.

“Things get easier with each generation,” he said. “I think the very fact that young people got involved, that tossed him over the top. All those college kids, people between 18 and 30, they really got involved,” said Odom, who has also been a math tutor and mentor at Monroe High School.

As late as 1972, he experienced blatant racism when he returned to Texas for a year to teach.

“I was in a Dallas public school for a year. They didn’t want black men in the classrooms, but they needed a math teacher,” he said. “It wasn’t OK.”

One of 13 children, Odom left home at 14 and ended up in Boston after hitching a ride north. He was taken in by a childless couple, Lucy and Harry Brown. He attended Boston Latin School and got a job in the kitchen of Boston’s famous Parker House Hotel, where Harry Brown was a chef.

Unable to find a job after finishing school, he said he lied about his age to join the Navy at 16.

At Portsmouth, Va., he worked at an ammunition depot.

“When I got in the Navy, I was pretty happy to be there,” he said. “I was in a group of 800 black guys, all in the ammunition depot. In two years there, not one black person got a promotion. It didn’t occur to me at the time that we were cheated. I was young and excited.

“I started thinking about it only three years ago. My goodness, they cheated,” Odom said. “They let us in, but they didn’t give us the full treatment. That’s where I am now, trying to deal with the past.”

A long time ago? Not so long. Now, he has this to think about: President-elect Barack Obama.

“He is standing on a lot of shoulders,” Odom said.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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