Odessa Shannon, first black woman elected to Montgomery County school board, dies at 91

Odessa Shannon, first black woman elected to Montgomery County school board, dies at 91

She was called a ‘trailblazer’ in pursuit of equality

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Odessa Shannon

Screenshot via County Cable Montgomery interview in 2015

Odessa Shannon, known as the first African American woman elected to the Montgomery County Board of Education, died Sunday at the age of 91.

A mother of two, Shannon, of Silver Spring, was elected to the Montgomery County Board of Education in 1982, and served until 1984. She vacated her seat when she was appointed as special assistant to then-Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist in 1984, according to a biography posted on the county government’s website. Shannon was the first black woman to hold the title.

From 1995 to 2008, she was the executive director of the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission. She also was the founder of the county’s Human Rights Hall of Fame.

Shannon was involved in many local civic organizations, including the Montgomery County Housing Partnership, United Way, the Montgomery County Arts Council, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Regional Institute of Children and Adolescents.

In a statement Monday afternoon, the Montgomery County Council wrote that the county “is a more just and fairer place because of Odessa’s public service, volunteerism and advocacy.”

“Odessa was a trailblazer, and her determination, grace and positivity will be sorely missed,” the statement said.

In a Twitter post, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith wrote: “My affection and respect for (Shannon) is immense.”

Shannon was born in Washington, D.C., and earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College in Massachusetts. She taught in Baltimore public schools, where she made $2,000 per year. Then she worked for the federal government, where she was the national program director for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the county’s biography.

In an interview with County Cable Montgomery in 2015, Shannon said she grew up in a “self-contained cocoon,” in a community primarily of black people, so she didn’t experience discrimination until she attended Smith College. She was the only black person in her class, Shannon said, and she struggled initially. But, eventually, she made friends and graduated on the dean’s list.

“In many instances, I’ve been the only black, the only woman, and those situations are stressful,” Shannon said. “But, again, they strengthened you. … Everything that I could find to help our people to move forward in this county I did, because I liked the challenge and I like to make a difference.”

Information about funeral services was not available Monday afternoon.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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