At a recent luncheon ceremony hosted at UT Arlington’s Library, former Mayor Elzie Odom placed his family and public papers among the library’s Special Collections.
Now anyone may discover the remarkable journey that he and his wife Ruby have traveled during their 73 years together. It is an inspirational American success story grounded in faith resulting, as they will eagerly tell you, in boundless blessings from God.
It begins with Elzie’s birth in 1929 in Shankleville, Texas – an African American municipality built by freedmen, former slaves who were emancipated during and after the Civil War.
His great, great grandfather, Jim Shankle, founded the community in 1867. Elzie’s account of his forebear’s life as husband to his wife Winnie and her three slave children will keep any audience spellbound.
When Shankle’s owner on a Mississippi plantation sold his wife and children to a Texas slave owner, he was left alone and desperate to somehow be reunited with them.
“All he knew about Texas,” Elzie explains, “was that it was somewhere to the West.”
Risking his life as a runaway, Shankle set out on foot over a 400-mile journey, swimming the Mississippi and Sabine Rivers, looking for Winnie. They were ultimately reunited, freed, and raised Winnie’s three children and six of their own in Shankleville.
Elzie and Ruby, whose families lived in Shankleville, fell in love during their teenage years. In a borrowed suit, he exchanged wedding vows with Ruby in 1947. “After the ceremony, I paid the preacher and had 10 dollars left in the world. I gave Ruby half and each of us gave our church a dollar and we began our life together with the remaining eight dollars,” recalls Elzie.
Elzie would become a part-time letter carrier with a salary of 98 cents an hour and would later advance to the position of only the fifth black postal inspector in the country – a job that would eventually land them in Arlington.
Upon retirement from that work, Elzie turned his attention to community service and then joined me as a city council member in 1990 after winning election as the city’s first black person to hold that post.
Those years would prove pivotal to the city’s future. We would face the test to lead our community to keep our place among the few Major League Cities of the country when the Texas Rangers needed a new ballpark. On the heels of meeting that challenge, a potential crisis was averted when we secured the decision from General Motors to keep their Arlington plant open in the midst of a national recession that had threatened its future.
I could always count on Elzie to be thoroughly committed to the daunting tasks we faced together and instrumental in leadership that produced the results our city badly needed to see happen.
Elzie would be critical in the transformation of our form of government from a method of electing council members in an all at-large system to a combination of five single member districts and three at-large seats to better serve a rapidly expanding city.
When I decided not to seek re-election after 10 years as mayor, Elzie sought and won that job, becoming the first black mayor in a city with a black population of less than 10 percent of its total citizenry.
At the library ceremony, UTA President Vistasp Karbhari recognized the collection of Elzie’s papers as “a true glimpse of a life and legacy – a tireless advocate for diversity, leadership, sacrifice, service, vision, study and inspiration.”
Current Mayor Jeff Williams talked about his relationship with Elzie that had begun when Jeff was a young engineer recognizing Elzie’s devotion as a deacon in Mt. Olive Baptist Church as a “servant leader” commanding respect and admiration from everyone who knew him.
In a memoir Elzie published a few years ago, he cited a verse from a hymn that inspired and informed his life: “When up on life’s billows you are tempest tossed, when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
In the ceremonial passing of the gavel on the occasion of his taking the oath of office as the city’s new mayor in 1997, I knew I had placed it into the hands of a very special man who would honor and serve the people of our city from a sincere heart and with compassion for others.