Mark J. Price

What are the chances that two major streets in Akron would be named for 1940s classmates at a private college in Atlanta?

Vernon Odom Boulevard, formerly Wooster Avenue, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, also known as the Akron Innerbelt, are tributes to distinguished alumni from Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male school.

Odom knew King at a time when most of the world had never heard of him. Long before the civil-rights marches, famous speeches, Nobel Peace Prize and federal holiday, King was that kid from sociology class.

“He was a quiet, unassuming young man, a very nice young fellow,” Odom once told the Beacon Journal. “He had a lot of ability, but he was not the person one would think would be out leading marches. It’s not to say that he was not a bright young boy, but it did not show when he was at Morehouse.”

Odom and King took several sociology courses together, but were not friends beyond the classroom. Odom was seven years older and a war veteran while King was a college prodigy at age 15.

A native of Biscoe, Ark., Odom was born in 1921, the youngest of eight children. His father, Dr. Elijah B. Odom, was born a slave in Mississippi. Because Biscoe’s public education ended at 10th grade, Vernon moved to Cleveland at age 16 to live with his sister Ada and attended Cleveland Central High, where he graduated in 1939.

For two years, Odom sold insurance and worked at a service station to raise enough money for college. He entered Morehouse in 1941, majored in economics and sociology, and threw the shot put for the track team.

When World War II intervened, Odom joined the Army and served for three years in the 29th Signal Construction Battalion in Europe. The soldier returned to Morehouse at war’s end to resume his studies — and that’s when he met King.

Young prodigy

Martin Luther King Jr., the son of a Baptist minister in Atlanta, began his freshman year at Morehouse in September 1944 at age 15.

“I shall never forget the hardships that I had upon entering college, for though I had been one of the top students in high school, I was still reading at only an eighth-grade level,” King later wrote. “I never went to the twelfth grade, and skipped another grade earlier, so I was a pretty young fellow at Morehouse.”

Odom and King’s classmates included others who made names for themselves after college, including Lerome Bennett, executive editor of Ebony magazine; Robert E. Johnson, associate publisher and executive editor of Jet magazine; and Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality.

While running a snack bar in a dormitory in 1947, Odom met his future wife, Sadie Harvey, a Morris Brown College biology teacher and the daughter of a Morehouse chemistry professor. They married five months later.

King had planned to become a physician but Morehouse President William Mays and philosophy professor George Kelsey inspired the young student to follow his father’s footsteps as a minister.

“I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape,” King wrote.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1948, King entered the seminary. Odom graduated in 1949 and earned a master’s degree in social work from Atlanta University. The former classmates blazed different trails for civil rights, social justice and humanitarianism.

Odom moved to Akron in 1953 to be the program director at the Community Service Center and Urban League. He served as associate director for six years before being promoted to executive director in 1964.

He and his wife, Sadie, raised two children, Vernon Jr. and Maida, who grew up to be prominent, award-winning journalists in Philadelphia.

Many social issues

As a community leader and activist, Odom promoted education, equality, employment and opportunity, working tirelessly to reduce poverty, racism, violence and apathy. He was a kindred spirit as the Rev. King led national marches for civil rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The world recoiled in horror April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated at age 39 in Memphis, Tenn.

When the Beacon Journal asked Odom for comment about the death of his former classmate, he replied: “America has suffered a great loss and his leadership will be hard to replace. I hope his philosophy of nonviolence is carried on, but I doubt very seriously that it will be. I would assume that America will now come to grips with the problem.”

A decade later, King’s memory seemed to be fading in Akron. There were no formal plans to honor the civil-rights leader’s birthday in January 1978.

“It’s unfortunate but we seem to have got away from observing most birthdays, including George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s,” Odom lamented. “At some time in the future, we’ll need to return to some observance of the birthday of this great man who has done so much for all Americans, both black and white.”

Odom got his wish 30 years ago when the federal holiday honoring King was first observed Jan. 20, 1986.

As a local tribute, Akron renamed its innerbelt Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1993.

Odom, a recipient of the Bert Polsky Humanitarian Award, retired as executive director of the Urban League in 1992. He was 74 when he passed away May 22, 1996. Akron renamed Wooster Avenue as Vernon Odom Boulevard in 2002.

The two thoroughfares intersect — as did the lives of two college students 70 years ago in Atlanta.

Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of Lost Akron from The History Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.