Dr. Hugo A. Owens Sr.
January 21, 1916-July 28, 2008
Hometown: Chesapeake, VA (Formerly Norfolk County, VA)
Profession: Dentist, City Councilman, and Civil Rights Leader
A native of Norfolk County (now Chesapeake), Dr. Owens was born on January 21, 1916 to James Edward Owens and Grace Catherine Melvin Owens of Deep Creek, as the youngest of five children. His siblings were James Melvin, Oliver Hamilton, Annie Eleanor, and Charles Cornelius Owens. As college graduates and local educators during the turn of the 20th century, Mr. & Mrs. Owens named their youngest son Hugo Armstrong, after the college presidents of their respective alma maters: James Hugo Johnston, Sr. of present-day Virginia State University, and Samuel Armstrong, of what is now Hampton University.
After graduating from I. C. Norcom High School in Portsmouth, he and his beloved Helen graduated in 1939 from Virginia State College for Negroes (now Virginia State University), where he received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He pursued a range of occupations: farm hand, paperboy, janitor, laborer, waiter, high school teacher and vice principal, before being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He and Helen tied the marital knot on September 2, 1941 in Crisfield, Maryland. His new bride identified and helped him apply to a program that enabled him to attend Howard University’s College of Dentistry in Washington, D.C.
With his 1947 Howard University degree in dental surgery (cum laude) in hand, this newly minted dentist returned to Portsmouth to set up a busy dental practice. As the civil rights movement emerged on the scene in the 1950s, Dr. Owens became an active participant and community leader. He initiated the first lawsuit in 1950 by African American citizens against the City of Portsmouth to win the right to use the city park and golf courses. He often said that his fight against Jim Crow discrimination was motivated by what was most dear to him – his children. His sense of character, integrity and fairness was aggravated by injustices that he had to confront whenever his children were unable to go to parks, movie theaters or eateries. His first taste of Portsmouth city politics was in 1956 when he ran unsuccessfully for Portsmouth City Council. While he lost by 62 votes, his passion for community advocacy and justice glowed with more determination and vigilance.
His dental office at 600 Green Street was a hub for community activity and mentoring for talented professionals and civic minded leaders. Dr. Owens made his dental office available to several young dentists who worked along side of him as they prepared to launch their own dental practices. His office was a training ground for dental assistants, secretaries and receptionists to gain practical experience. He also served as president of the National Dental Association (a premier national cadre of African Americans in dentistry). As a member of Virginia’s Tidewater Dental Association, Dr. Owens authored several articles in medical and dental journals nationwide to promote preventive dentistry. Only two blocks from the site of the old plantation where his great-great grandfather, David Owens, had been a slave, his Green Street dental office served a staging arena for local civil rights strategists in their efforts to desegregate city libraries, cemeteries, golf courses, housing, public schools and Portsmouth General Hospital. Dr. Owens served as president of the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP and brought federal attention to job discrimination at local naval installations.
He helped found and served as president of several organizations, such as Alpha Phi Alpha’s Epsilon Nu Lambda chapter in Portsmouth, the Central Civic Forum, the John L. McGriff Dental Society, and the Southeastern Civic League. He was a Trustee of Zion Baptist Church as well as a board member of Portsmouth & Chesapeake Chambers of Commerce, the Tidewater United Way, the Hampton Roads Public Broadcasting Corporation, Miller Day Nursery and the YMCA. He was also a member of the regional board of the former United Virginia Bank (now SunTrust).
In 1962, Dr. Owens and his family returned to Norfolk County and established their home just before the area merged with South Norfolk to become Chesapeake. In 1970, he became one of the first two blacks elected to the Chesapeake City Council. He served for ten years, with eight years as vice mayor. His presence, and that of his colleague W. P. Clarke, ensured minority representation on boards and commissions and dramatically increased the employment of blacks in city government.
Dr. Owens has been honored with countless awards and distinguished recognition for leadership and civic service. The Norfolk newspapers cited him as Chesapeake’s “Citizen of the Decade” in 1980 to highlight his retirement from Chesapeake City Council. The Great Bridge Jaycees named him Chesapeake’s First Citizen in 1988 to spotlight his contribution to citizenship.
Dr. Owens has been listed in Who’s Who in Southeastern United States, Who’s Who in Black America, and Community Leaders of America. As guest lecturer, clinician, and keynote speaker, he appeared before the American Dental Association, the American Society for Preventive Dentistry, Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Old Dominion University, Howard University, New York University, and the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center) and countless political and civic associations. He was inducted into the International College of Dentists in 1986.
He had been engaged in notable civic activities during his dental career and after his retirement in 1990. He served as rector of his alma mater, Virginia State University and of Old Dominion University, and served on the board of Norfolk State University. In 1996, Old Dominion University named its African American Cultural Center to honor him. Hugo A. Owens Middle School opened on September 2, 1997 (the date of Hugo and Helen’s 56th wedding anniversary).
-Biography provided from Dr. Owens’ Memorial Service.