She draws on family history for this role

Published February 6, 2007

When Ersula Knox Odom studied theater at Eckerd College more than 30 years ago, she dreamed of opening a cultural center back home in Springfield, Ga.

But real life intervened - marriage, family and a career in corporate America.

Lately though, Odom, 52, has dusted off those decades-old theater lessons for her one-woman portrayal of educator Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the giants of African-American history. Odom will be at Pasco- Hernando Community College's Dade City campus at 7 p.m. Thursday as part of the school's Black History Month Celebration.

How she got here is a story of family, history and memory.

Each family needs at least one person to preserve its stories -its births and deaths, departures and homecomings. Without that person, the family story is usually lost on the trash heap of history. That happens for too many families, especially African-American ones, which often are splintered by generations of slavery and migration.

Odom inherited the gift of family stories from her maternal grandmother, Sula Stephens, with whom she grew up in Springfield. Sula, after whom Ersula was named, was born in 1896. The youngest of seven siblings, she lived into her 90s. She regaled young Ersula with the stories of growing up in the South, picking cotton, shaking pecan trees.

Even after Odom went away to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, her fascination with those stories never waned. Whenever she went home for holidays, she would pester her grandmother to hear them again. She even got a tape recorder to capture her grandmother's voice.

By the time she had graduated from college, the house had been destroyed by fire. The only keepsakes were the ones she had stored in trunks and boxes.

All of the family history remained untouched until 2001, when, as she was preparing for her 25th college reunion, Odom went looking into the old boxes and trunks. She found the old pictures, journals and scrapbooks, and the audio tape of the conversations with Sula.

Those stories on the audio tape became a CD in 2004 with her grandmother talking, laughing and singing. A book, At Sula's Feet, came a year later. That book, written in poetic verse she calls life lyrics, is grounded not in one place but in memory.

About the time she discovered her literary voice, a friend strongly encouraged the mother of two daughters to lend her long forgotten theatrical voice to portray McLeod Bethune, presidential confidante and founder of Bethune-Cookman College. Now Odom is in her first season as a Florida Humanities Council Road Scholar. She makes presentations to groups and organizations as she recaptures McLeod Bethune's indomitable spirit.

On stage, Odom dresses like the famous educator as she talks to a tour group on the campus of Bethune Cookman College on the day of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. She shares her thoughts about the struggle that preceded the decision and her own contributions to the civil rights struggle.

For Odom, playing the role has been a transforming experience.

"I am personally being motivated by her life, how much she was able to accomplish," Odom said. "She did so much."

Mary McLeod Bethune certainly made history. Odom tries to keep that history alive.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.



If you go

What: Ersula Knox Odom speaking about Mary McLeod Bethune, PHCC's Black History Month Celebration

Where: PST Auditorium Room E-130, 36727 Blanton Road, Dade City

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Cost: Free

Call: (352) 518-1235