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Former Rector, Civil Rights Activist Hugo A. Owens Dies

Hugo A. Owens Sr., Old Dominion University's first African-American Board of Visitors rector and a well known civil rights activist, died Tuesday, July 29, in Chesapeake. He was 92.

Owens, for whom the university's African-American Cultural Center was named in 1996, served on the ODU board from 1990-1994. He was rector from 1992-93.

During his tenure, he was a tireless lobbyist for the university. As the only "dentist-rector," he was fond of saying that he endeavored to "build bridges of understanding, extract badly needed funds from the legislature and lead the university as it braces for the 21st century."

He was named the first honorary member of the Coalition of Black Faculty and Administrators and was the recipient of the university's eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award.

Former President James V. Koch described Owens as a Nelson Mandela of Hampton Roads.

"He endured unfair treatment and the like. But he was determined and emerged the moral victor," Koch said in a Virginian-Pilot article. "He was a proud man but not a boastful guy. He really cared about his fellow human beings."

The youngest of five children, Owens was born Jan. 21, 1916, and was named after the presidents of his parents' alma maters, James Hugo Johnston Sr. of present-day Virginia State University, and Samuel Armstrong of what is now named Hampton University.

He attended I.C. Norcom High School and Virginia State College, and began teaching in Maryland and Portsmouth. After being drafted into the Army, Owens trained to become a dentist and opened a practice in Portsmouth in 1947.

He joined the civil rights movement and filed his first lawsuit in 1950 to integrate the city parks. Later, he sued to gain access to city golf courses and he helped win a lawsuit to desegregate the city's libraries. He was part of a group of doctors and dentists who desegregated Portsmouth General Hospital.

In 1970, Owens was one of two African Americans elected to Chesapeake City Council, where he served for 10 years.

Funeral arrangements are not yet finalized.

This article was posted on: July 31, 2008

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