Odessa M. Shannon
Odessa M. Shannon was born in Washington, D.C. on July 4, 1928 to Gladys and Raymond McKenzie. She was educated in Washington’s public schools, graduating from Dunbar High School as Valedictorian with a perfect SAT score. The only black student in her class, she earned her B.A. from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, graduating on the Dean’s List.
Ms. Shannon began her public career as a teacher in Baltimore public schools. She knew of Montgomery County public school's reputation, so she and her family relocated from Washington D.C. to Silver Spring, Maryland as her daughter was about to enter the first grade. She lived in Silver Spring for the remainder of her life.
Early on, she realized it was necessary for African Americans to organize to ensure equality in her new community, and her passion for Montgomery County politics was born. She entered the federal government in the computer field. While actively participating in Montgomery County civic duties, she continued to rise through the ranks to one of the highest nonpolitical positions in the Senior Executive Service: National Program Director for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In this position, she was responsible for the operation of 49 field offices nationwide and the work sharing agreements with all the state and local human rights agencies.
After retiring from the federal government, Ms. Shannon’s focus turned to her local community. She was the first black woman ever elected to the Montgomery County School Board in 1982 and served there until she was appointed Special Assistant to the County Executive in 1984. She was the first woman ever to hold this position. From 1995 to 2008, she served as Executive Director of the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission.
While raising her two children, she served as President of the local Jack and Jill chapter and then as Regional Director of the Eastern Region. Ms. Shannon served on the Board of Directors of several organizations including Montgomery Housing Partnership, Harriet’s List, United Way, the Montgomery County Arts Council, the Regional Institute of Children and Adolescents, and Positive Shades of Blacks. She was one of the original directors of the National Political Congress of Black Women. A graduate of Leadership Montgomery in 1997, she was also a member of the Coalition Opposed to Violence and Extremism.
She was the founder of the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame and is included in the Women’s History Archives of the Montgomery County Commission for Women. Ms. Shannon received numerous awards throughout her career for her many accomplishments and advocacy including the Lifetime Achievement Award for Volunteerism from President Obama, the Distinguished Community Leadership Award from County Executive Leggett, Maryland’s Hornbook Award for Outstanding Service to Education, the MCPS Award for Distinguished Service to Public Education, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Award for Exceptional Achievement in Advancing the Rights of Minorities and Women. She was listed in several Who’s Who, including Who’s Who in Black America, the World’s Who’s Who of Women and the Hall of Fame of the International Who’s Who of Business and Professional Women. She was awarded the Outstanding Public Service Award from the American Society for Public Administration, and the Women of Vision Award from the Montgomery County Commission for Women. For her significant achievements and contributions, the County named a middle school in her honor. She devoted her last years to serving with the 1977-2 Action Group and served as a commissioner on the Montgomery County Commission on Aging.
Becoming the first woman, or first black, or first black woman, or the first anything, requires that you have a hard head, a tough skin, a certain amount of courage (or what some people would call sheer foolhardiness), and a lot of support from the people who care about you. --Odessa M. Shannon
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2022.