By Jonah Grinkewitz

Old Dominion University culminated its celebration of Black History Month with poetry, remarks from the U.S. Senate chaplain and the presentation of the Hugo Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award during its 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Observance on Feb. 28.

ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., welcomed viewers to the virtual event with remarks on the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and how ODU is carrying on the work he started.

Portrait of Maurice Jones

Maurice Jones

"He channeled his compassion and warmth by organizing communities around a common cause, and he rallied on the immense faith to continue an important fight despite threats against his life," President Hemphill said.

"At ODU we are fostering a learning environment that encourages inclusivity, diversity of thought and equality. As a minority-serving institution, our campus is representative of our community in which we reside and serve."

President Hemphill next introduced guest speaker Barry C. Black, chaplain for the U.S. Senate.

Black, who has served in the role since 2003, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from ODU in 2013. Prior to working on Capitol Hill, he served in the U.S. Navy for more than 27 years, ending his career as chief of Navy chaplains.

Black talked about how King's speeches inspired him to keep his faith and finish school when he experienced racism as a college student in Alabama during the 1960s.

"Martin Luther King Jr. helped me see what I think we as Americans should strive to think about when we commemorate his legacy - and that is understanding the meaning of true spiritual success," Black said. "Let us live so that we will meet God's requirement of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with the transcendent."

Luisa A. Igloria, Louis I. Jaffe Endowed Professor and University Professor of English and Creative Writing at ODU and the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia, read her poem "Dear America (American Dream)."

Igloria described the poem as an "open letter to America" in response to the anxiousness created by the pandemic and growing incidents of violence directed toward people of color. The poem was one of 39 artifacts chosen to go into a new time capsule buried in September 2021 at the site of the former Robert E. Lee Confederate monument in Richmond.

Students from Igloria's Young Poets in the Community (YPIC) project also read their original poems. YPIC's goal is to showcase young poets in Virginia who are trying to use the power of poetry to influence social change, community and civic engagement and emotional well-being.

Additionally, Will Wilson, an ODU MFA creative writing candidate, read a poem to open the observance.

Hugo Owens Jr., son of the late Dr. Hugo Owens Sr., then presented the Hugo Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award to Maurice A. Jones.

Jones is CEO of OneTen, a coalition of leading chief executives and their companies who are coming together to develop, hire and promote one million Black Americans in the next 10 years who do not yet have a four-year degree into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement.

He also served as president of Pilot Media, Virginia secretary of commerce and trade and deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration.

"I want to thank ODU, President Hemphill and the Owens family for this incredible honor," said Jones. "I'm not worthy of an honor that bears Dr. King's name and Dr. Owens' name, but I'm going to do the best I can to try and uphold what they fought for and stood for."

This award is given annually at the MLK event to an outstanding individual or organization that has made considerable contributions to civil rights, politics, housing and social programs through leadership, dedication and persistence over a period.

Owens was known as a tireless lobbyist for the University. He served on the University's Board of Visitors from 1990 to 1994 and was the board's first African American rector. The University opened a residence hall named in his honor in 2021.

Watch the full event here.

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