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Opinion: ODU honors civil rights icon with new residence hall



Cecelia Tucker is the director of community relations at Old Dominion University.
Cecelia Tucker is the director of community relations at Old Dominion University.

When James V. Koch was president of Old Dominion University,?he described Dr. Hugo A. Owens as “the Nelson Mandela?of Hampton Roads.”

I can’t think of a?better?description of a?civil rights icon?who?fought?so?hard to dismantle Jim Crow, but did so with a?temperate?demeanor.

And I can’t think of a better tribute to him than the recent dedication of ODU’s newest residence hall, Hugo A. Owens House — a living-learning community for STEM-H students. With its state-of-the-art amenities and reminders of Owens’ triumphs, I believe it will prepare generations of students for a lifetime of achievement and public service.

Owens’ grandmother, a former slave,?taught him?about the evils of slavery and racial discrimination, but also?about the virtues of patience, a cool temperament?and the powers of persuasion.

But like Mandela, whose gentle manner masked an iron resolve to dismantle apartheid in South Africa, Owens didn’t hesitate to lead demonstrations and take his concerns to court when persuasion was not successful.

A Virginia State graduate?and native of Norfolk County, Owens went to dental school after serving in World War II and?then?set up practice in Portsmouth.

He began working for civil rights?almost immediately.

“My father, from a young age, was trying to get simple justice for everyone to use public facilities,” Hugo Owens Jr. said.

“They called him a radical, a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser. But he was a very steady, reasoned man who took a stand when he knew something was wrong.”

At a time when building names are rightfully being scrutinized more closely, Old Dominion is exhibiting its commitment to diversity and inclusion by memorializing this mild-mannered visionary.

The?470-bed, $62.5 million residence hall named for Owens houses some of ODU’s best and brightest students, who also can go to class and conduct research in their residence hall. Leaders at ODU describe Owens House as an “incubator” for students?to create new products and solve problems.

That is fitting. Owens’ daughter, Paula Owens Parker, said her father’s office was “an incubator for dreams.” He helped hundreds of people “by opening doors and introducing them to people to help them realize their goals.

“Thanks to President?John R.?Broderick,” she said, “Owens House will continue that legacy of being an incubator for dreams,” she added.

Owens helped integrate?Portsmouth’s?parks, libraries, golf courses, stores, cemeteries, restaurants?and neighborhoods without violence.?He led the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP when?the city began to integrate its schools.

His patience was sorely tested when he and his daughter were told to leave a park because they were Black.?That angered him,?but he hid that anger in court, where he?successfully?sued to open Portsmouth parks to people of all colors.

I, too, experienced racism as?both?a teenager and adult?and suffered many indignities. Gov. Ralph Northam?was correct when he said at the dedication of Owens House: “We know that racism and discrimination of the Jim Crow era did not change because white people realized it was unfair. It changed because people like Dr. Owens were brave enough to stand up and say, ‘This is not right.’”

Those?battles did?not leave Owens a bitter man.?He became one of the first African Americans elected to the Chesapeake City Council and served there for a decade, including eight years as vice mayor. He?was?also?Old Dominion’s first African American?rector and loved being around students.

Owens mentored several politicians, including Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, who spoke at the ceremony. “It’s important that our young people understand who our leaders were and the impact they made,” Hayes said.

Owens’ spirit pervades the residence hall. His career is highlighted?on a?remembrance wall, and all five floors feature photographs and quotes from?him.

At the dedication, Broderick said, “Hugo Owens House was designed not only to celebrate his legacy, but to inspire our?students. My hope is they will carry forward his spirit and make their own contributions to improve the world.”

That?is?my hope as well.

Cecelia Tucker,?who participated in sit-ins during the 1960s, has been director of community relations at Old Dominion University since 1991.

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