By Morgan Searles | LSU Student
FERRIDAY, La. – Dedicated spouse, record keeper, mayor and civil rights advocate, Odeal Montgomery played many roles during her 89 years in this northeaster Louisiana community. Add schoolteacher, alderman and philanthropist to the resume and one comes closer to describing her life.
As the only female mayor of Ferriday -- serving one term from 1994 to 2000 – Montgomery is one of only three African Americans to hold that position. Her time in office was dedicated to improved management of funds and water operations in the town, but her legacy goes deeper. She bore witness to the advancement of rights for all in Concordia Parish, once the epicenter of racial-directed hatred and violence by the Ku Klux Klan, including several unsolved murders racial hatred.
"Whatever I'm telling you, it really happened," she says softly.
Montgomery married Henry Montgomery, in 1942. The two registered to vote in 1951, nearly a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver famous speeches or spearhead the Civil Rights Movement.
Henry was one of seven black men who went to the courthouse in nearby Vidalia on Aug. 20, 1951, to register to vote — a move Odeal said started political advancement for the town's African American community.
An article in The Natchez Democrat regarding the event quoted a spokesman for the group of men saying "White people of Concordia parish are quite willing to extend the privilege of suffrage to negros,"
That, says Montgomery, wasn't true.
Sheregistered 15 days later, as civic opportunity creaked open to African Americans.
She said her husband found the only way he could encourage people to register, when they knew the white establishment didn't want them to, was to get involved in politics and qualify for political office – which Henry did in 1966 and sought a seat on the school board.
Though he didn't win then or in 1970, when he ran for that position a second time, more blacks registered in order to support him at the polls. But in 1968, he was elected to office, a seat on the town council.
Odeal Montgomery recalled the first big problem the black community faced after voting registration was the split session for school children, when black schools were closed for a period of time so children could work in fields, though white children still attended school.
The local NAACP stood up for the rights of black children, promising that if split-sessions continued, the black children would go to white schools. This threat ended split sessions in the area.
Following one infamous killing in the area, African-American shopkeeper Frank Morris in December 1964, a brief, roughly typed letter, signed only "The Colored People of Concordia Parish," was sent to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover pleading for FBI intervention and discovered in 2011 by LSU students working on racially motivated murder cases in Louisiana during the 1960s that had gone cold.
"Is it possible these (killers of Morris) are going to get away with this act without being exposed, even though the police was part of the gang that permitted this terrible thing to happen? Your office is our only hope so don't fail us."
Some in the Ferriday African-American community believe Henry Montgomery and a small group of other black residents were behind that letter, although the authors have never been identified and Odeal Montgomery says she has no evidence her husband was involved in the petition for justice.
Race relations in Ferriday have changed tremendously, Montgomery says today. In the last seven or eight years, African Americans have moved into areas of town once reserved for white only. She said a section called The Woodlands is now about one-third to one-half black.
"There's still discrimination, but it's not on the surface as it was, that you could really see it. And with the help of god maybe one day they won't look at race."
When Henry Montgomery died of cancer in 1980, Odeal Montgomery was appointed to finish his third term as a city alderman and went on to serve 13 years in the position.
"I didn't really want to run for mayor, but I kept thinking that's what he would have wanted," she said. "I decided that I would, and I made history for being there for 2000."
Robert Lee III remembers Odeal Montgomery's time in office, saying she was a good mayor who had four years without a whiff of scandal.
"She got in real good with everybody, and she wrestled the situation with the water," he said. "Her presence, Mrs. Montgomery, that name, it reached a long ways. I think she did the best she could to continue the work of Mr. Montgomery at that time."
At her last Town Council meeting on June 30, 2000, Montgomery said, "I am not retiring. Ferriday is my home and I love it."
And s he didn't rest. For the last 33 years with a foundation to give scholarships to disadvantaged children, a project Henry Montgomery began when he was dying of cancer.
"I'm still active," she said. "I'm interested in children staying in school and being educated. If they need school supplies or need to spend quite a bit of funds on school uniforms, we are there."