CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — The legacy of a Chesapeake civil rights trailblazer will continue to live on through a historical highway marker placed outside of his childhood home.
Dr. Hugo Armstrong Owens grew up on Shell Road in the Deep Creek area of the city in a three-generation household.
Owens would go on to become one of the first Black City Council members for the city. He also was a dentist and worked to desegregate public facilities in Portsmouth during the 1950s and 60s.
On Wednesday, family, friends, and others from the community came out to celebrate the marker at the Owens-Melvin Home, which was built in 1915 by his father, James Edward Owens.
“I feel great. I feel really great,” said Owens’ daughter, Patrice Owens Parker. “This is really wonderful. This is the first time I’ve seen it. It’s great.”
Owens Parker said it took them about two years to get the marker up, which undergoes a rigorous process through the state.
But, the idea formulated back in 2011, when the family met with the Library of Virginia.
According to Dr. Colita Fairfax, who spoke at Wednesday’s event, Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1927. More than 2,800 markers have been erected and the commonwealth is working to encourage more applications and makers pertaining to African American history.
Owens Parker said the home was built by her grandfather in 1915, who obtained an education from Hampton Normal and Agricultural School, now known as Hampton University. Her mother graduated from Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now Virginia State University.
Both of their parents were enslaved but were able to send all of their children to college.
“He would still be up there waxing poetic,” said Owens about her father. “He would still be up there talking and talking about this family and this house.”
Those who spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony said the lessons Owens learned inside the three-generational household — Owens’ formerly enslaved grandparents also lived in the home for a time — helped shape who he became.
“There are many who attribute the village to an individual’s success. In Dr. Owen’s case, it truly was the family. Some of his remarkable qualities were undoubtedly inherited from his ancestors,” said Dr. Tommy Bogger, a historian, archivist, and author who worked for Norfolk State University for many years.
Bogger remarked on how Owens’ grandparents were able to not only send all of their children to college, but acquire land, and learn how to read in write during a time when many Black people in the South had little opportunity to do so.
The historian said he met Owens many times throughout his life and understood how his family impacted his life.
“I was greatly impressed by his keen intellect, his knowledge of history, and his fearless and brave determination for racial justice,” Bogger said.
Del. Cliff Hayes, who represents the 77th House District of Virginia, also knew Owens. He said he’s appreciative of the fact that the civil rights icon is being recognized.
“They saw it fitting to recognize the place where so much was birthed out of a life experience, birthed out of that home. So, here we are appreciating this place where Dr. Owens was birthed right out of here where he put a shoulder to the wheel and pushed so we could ride out together in harmony,” he said.
Owens also has a middle school in Chesapeake named after him. The World War II veteran also served as vice mayor while on Chesapeake City Council.
Owens sat on the Board of Visitors at Norfolk State University and was rector for both Virginia State University and Old Dominion University.
A residence hall at ODU, Owens Hall, was also named after him.
Owens Parker said now, her family will work to preserve and find a new home for items that have been passed down in their family, including items that her ancestors took with them once they were emancipated in the 1800s.
“We’re going to find a home for that. We have some mementos from this house we’re going to want to place somewhere. That will be a project for another day,” she said.