“I’m the life of BCF,” she says of her role at the foundation. “I’m the first thing you hear. I’m the first impression.”
The mother of three, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of three, Ms. Odessa is a neighborhood activist, a dedicated volunteer, and an inspiration to all who come to know her. I can think of no more fitting subject for this blog's debut.
When she first moved from rural Wicomico County, MD to Baltimore nearly 50 years ago, Odessa Hampton experienced some culture shock. “Coming across the [Chesapeake Bay] Bridge was like going to New York City,” she laughs.
The big city held many surprises — both good and bad — for Hampton, who grew up on a small farm near Salisbury and came to Baltimore to pursue a teaching degree at Morgan State University (then Morgan State College).
“I was scared to death the first time I came here,” she reflects. “All the concrete! I thought those high rise projects were a prison; they were really frightening. If you didn’t know what block you were supposed to be on, you could be in trouble.”
After graduating from Salisbury High School in 1963, Hampton spent the next 15 years in Baltimore with her husband, whom she met in college. She recalls the sixties and seventies as a time of tension and turmoil.
“There was lots of segregation and racial unrest. I was here during the 1968 riots, with all the looting and shooting and the marshals. It was a tough time.”
During those early years, she frequently found herself bridging racial divides. Hampton’s first job in Baltimore was at a luggage company which has since gone out of business. It was only after she had worked there for some time and made friends at the business that she discovered that, prior to her start date, the manager had gathered the entire staff together to brace them for the arrival of the company’s first African-American employee.
She laughingly recalls how the manager reassured her future coworkers. “’Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘she’s articulate and smart and well dressed.’” Although the incident became something of a “running joke” in the company, she says that “some folks never got used” to working alongside an African-American person.
“We were taught in school back in the day that we had to be three times more qualified than our white counterparts,“ says Hampton. “You were taught to keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told.”
When she considers how issues of race have changed in Baltimore since then, Hampton‘s response is measured. “Some things are a lot better,” she says, while others “don’t seem to have changed much.” Much of the racism and inequity she encountered in the sixties and seventies still exists, “it’s just a little more subtle.”
Hampton’s husband graduated from Morgan with a business degree and became one of the first African-American managers at Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel producer in the U.S. After 15 years at the Baltimore plant, he was transferred to BethSteel’s headquarters in Bethlehem, PA, where he became the first African-American manager at the company’s home office. During the 10 years they spent in Bethlehem, he and Odessa looked forward to the time when they could return to Baltimore.
“Baltimore is the kind of town that grows on you,” she explains. “Once you get to know Baltimore, it’s like a small town. What I liked most was the people and the neighborhoods. I’ve always been partial to northwest Baltimore, where I live now.”
Asked what she enjoys about living in Baltimore, Odessa smiles. “I love my neighborhood,” she says fondly. “I love the camaraderie, the fact that neighbors know each other and help each other out.“
Like many of Baltimore’s historic communities, Odessa’s neighborhood of Howard Park has benefited from the contributions of its older residents, the people who remained in the city when so many of their neighbors left for the surrounding counties and other states.
“Older people there have kept the neighborhood alive,” says Hampton. "Now young people are coming back. Now I have neighbors with kids. I can sit on the porch and watch them run back and forth.”
She describes Howard Park as having an “almost country” feeling about it, an atmosphere that surprises her sister whenever she travels from the Eastern Shore for a visit. “My sister, you couldn’t bomb her out of the Eastern Shore,” Hampton says earnestly. “It’s hard to get her to cross the bridge. But she came and she loved sitting on the porch, watching the kids. She said, ‘I wouldn’t have known this was Baltimore.’”
But like any urban neighborhood, Howard Park is not without its challenges. Hampton describes how residents have tried for years to attract a much-needed supermarket to the community. Although a Philadelphia-based chain has expressed interest in opening a store in Howard Park, development has been stalled. “We keep meeting and meeting with the city,” she says with exasperation. “It’s frustrating for the neighborhood.”
Still, Howard Park residents make the best out of the situation, as they always have. “I take my neighbors to the grocery store. When somebody’s sick , we care for them. We all come out and dig during snowstorms. It’s a very cohesive neighborhood,” says Hampton with pride.
Hampton expresses her civic-mindedness in a variety of ways. In addition to running the thrift store at Gwynn Oak United Methodist Church, she serves as the church’s finance chair and sings with the choir. She is also active with the Howard Park Community Association and the local elementary school. And a few years ago she and her fellow residents successfully advocated for the restoration of a bus route that had been eliminated due to budget cutbacks by the Maryland Transit Administration.
Hampton believes that this spirit of neighborliness is the key to a thriving Baltimore.
“Take the time to get to know your neighbors,” she advises. “You would be surprised how much it helps you and them. It makes you feel like you’re worth something.”