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Adversity and diversity: The NMAI donation of Dr. James Odom Jr.

HARRISBURG, Pa. ? The family story of Dr. James Odom Jr., an individual donor to the National Museum of the American Indian, reads like an epic historic novel.

Odom, a retired English professor, did not learn of his Cherokee heritage until he was home on leave in 1952 following recruit training for the Marine Corps during the Korean War. His terminally ill father informed him that his family was of the Cherokee Nation from Tennessee. James Sr. had never told his son to protect him from the severe anti-Cherokee prejudice and contempt he had experienced while growing up in the Southeast.

"It was not something we talked about," said Odom. He said that his father was born in 1887, which would have made him the second generation of Cherokee following the Trail of Tears.

The elder Odom's concerns, however tragic, were well founded. Many Cherokee either evaded or deserted the forced migration from their ancestral homelands in Tennessee and Georgia that became known as the Trail of Tears. Anti-Cherokee laws were passed that allowed non-Indian settlers and farmers to seize the Cherokee homelands and property for profit. The combination of President Andrew Jackson and the discovery of gold in Georgia put the Cherokee at an insurmountable disadvantage.

"I made the donation to [to the NMAI] for recognition and remembrance," said Odom.

Odom made a donation to the museum's Honor Wall of bricks recognizing individual donors also because it is something permanent. He explained that in cultures where there is an oral tradition, as there is in Indian country, the history of the people is quite fragile until it is recorded. The history dies when the historian dies because young people do not listen anymore unless something is written down.

"My family name will be recorded as a matter of record," said Odom of his donation. "Every family needs that."

Odom's maternal family history is equally as interesting. His grandfather, Roscoe Albert Pearson, was former slave freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Pearson, who died just months short of his 100th birthday, often told his family he could remember being a slave and actually being freed according to Odom. He had been owned by a family named Clay in Green County, Tennessee, believed by Odom to be the same plantation where Cassius Clay-Mohammed Ali's family came from.

According to information from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Proclamation would not have reached Odom's family immediately because it was limited for all intensive purposes to territory controlled by Union troops. The end of the Civil War did not end racism in the South and Odom initially attended schools that were fully segregated. His family moved to Buffalo, N.Y., from Tennessee while he was still in school and was shocked at being in the same class as students not of color.

"I couldn't believe it when I went to school and the teacher took me into class and said 'here's your seat,'" said Odom.

Odom began his academic career at Buffalo State, after returning from his service in Korea on the GI Bill, and earned his undergraduate degree in English. He recalled humorously that he attended Buffalo State before it became a state-funded school and almost bankrupt because it was the cheapest school in the area. He also holds a Master's degree from Ohio State and a doctoral degree from Michigan.

Odom retired in 1996 after being a faculty member and president of Harrisburg Area Community College. He specialized in the history of the English language and taught classes as far reaching as Old and Middle English. Odom has written some unpublished children's books, but had more success teaching than writing.

"I thought the books were pretty good, but the publisher didn't think so," said a good-natured Odom, adding that teaching was more than challenging. "There is a difference in knowing how to do something and being able to teach someone."