County's first elected Black official made history across Texas
Last updated 2/7/2023 at 7:12pm
As 1965 civil rights protests led to the "Bloody Sunday" beatings in Alabama, Orange citizens elected their first Black public official.
Elzie Odom was elected to become a trustee in the old Orange Independent School District. He did not serve long because a job promotion took him across the country. He never lost his interest in public service and later became the first Black mayor of Arlington, Texas, where a recreation center is now named in his honor.
He wrote a memoir in 2012 called "Counting My Blessings" and drew a crowd in Orange when he held a book signing. The Orange Public Library has a copy of his book. He is still living in Arlington and will turn 94 in May.
Odom's life touches on many aspects of Black history in the United States. He grew up in Shankleville in Newton County. The community in the East Texas woods was established as a refuge for freed slaves. It was founded by his great-great grandparents, James and Winnie Shankle.
He grew up in a community where his mother and father had important roles and he went to segregated schools. His memoir includes a story of encountering the mean disrespect of racism as a boy when he went into Newton, the county seat, with his father.
His biography said he met Ruby Truvillion when he was in high school at the Burkeville Colored High School. They married in 1947.
Odom attended one year at Prairie View College and then returned to Shankleville where he got married. The wedded couple moved to Orange in 1949 when he got a job with the United States Postal Service. He became a mail carrier and his route took him into the white neighborhoods in town during the time when legal segregation and Jim Crow laws ruled.
Mrs. Odom began working for a black dentist in Orange and she later became a Registered Radiologist Technologist.
The two joined the Orange NAACP and he recalled the group having to meet in secret locations during the mid-1950s as the state persecuted the group.
One of the goals of the group was the integration of Orange schools. At the time, the Orange ISD had a "colored" high school and two "colored" elementary schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had made a landmark decision in the May 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional and did not provide equal education and rights.
Odom's memoir includes how the Black community worked together to elect a representative to the school board.
During that time, states could charge a poll tax. Texas had a poll tax of $1.50, which is about $14.50 in 2023 money, according to the U.S. inflation calculator. The country had no equal pay laws. Nearly all employers paid Black and women less than they paid white men for the same job. Paying $29 for a husband and wife to vote might mean leaving their children without food.
The Associated Press in May 1965 wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson's Voting Rights Act passing in the U.S. Senate: "The bill is aimed primarily at Southern States, where literacy and similar voting qualification tests would be suspended and federal examiners could be appointed to register voters.
However, Odom managed to be elected even before the Voting Rights Act. He lost during his first try in 1964 and then went on to win in May 1965. His election was two months after a young future congressman, John Lewis, along with dozens of others, were beaten by state police in Alabama as they marched for voting rights.
As a trustee on the Orange school board, Odom helped with the first year of partial integration here as the school district embarked on a goal to integrate all grades and schools.
It was also a time when the Orange ISD was having financial problems because the West Orange school district had the petrochemical plants paying taxes, while a majority of the employees in the plants had students in the Orange district.
Odom was on the Orange school board when the county school board dissolved the district and attached it to the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District. Full integration and full consolidation came in 1967.
That was the year Odom left Orange. The postal service promoted him to postal inspector. His biography said he was the first Black postal inspector in Texas and only the fifth Black postal inspector in the country.
He was transferred to Los Angeles by the postal service. He and his family came back to Texas after a transfer to San Antonio and then to the Dallas area in 1979. He retired from the postal service in 1987.
Odom ran for the Arlington City Council in 1990 and won. He held the position for seven years before winning his election as mayor of the city in May 1997. He served as mayor six years.
During his time on the council, he helped keep the General Motors plant in Arlington and the Texas Rangers baseball team. He was the council liaison with the Rangers for building The Ballpark in Arlington, which opened in 1994.
The city paid tribute to him by naming a 60,000 square-foot recreation center in his honor.