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‘The epitome of grace’: Shirley Owens-Hicks’ relentless advocacy for civil rights and public education

One of the Boston civil rights "heroes" on the 1965 Freedom Plaza, Shirley Owens-Hicks served on the Boston School Committee, and in the Massachusetts State House for 20 years.Dawn Hicks

Former state representative Shirley Owens-Hicks has always been a relentless advocate for civil rights and Black and brown communities, not just in her work, but in her personal life as well, friends and family say.

Her daughter Dawn Hicks remembers she and her sister often had “roommates” growing up — whenever a teen in the community was having difficulties at home and needed a place to stay, Owens-Hicks didn’t hesitate to welcome them in.

“She always opened her home, her heart, and whatever she had, to young people,” Hicks said.

Her passion and care for children and drive to ensure children of color had access to a quality public education drove her to get involved in the movement for school desegregation. After the monumental ruling by Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. in 1974 led to the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, Owens-Hicks brought her advocacy work to the School Committee, where she served as an elected member from 1984 to 1988 and worked to reform the school system.

While Owens-Hicks, 81, was not able to speak to The Boston Globe for this story, her colleague and friend, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, the first Black woman to serve in the Massachusetts Senate, said Owens-Hicks’ leadership on the School Committee was critical.

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“It is hard to articulate the day-to-day tension, stress, environment, the rhetoric, the vitriol, the violence that they endured as School Committee members on a regular basis,” Wilkerson said. “All because they wanted to make sure that Black children in Boston received the education that the state and federal Constitution bestowed to them.”

When Owens-Hicks was a teenager, her family moved from Alabama to Massachusetts to pursue a better education for her and her seven siblings. Owens-Hicks received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Boston University in 1970 and her master’s in education from Harvard University in 1972.

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Their family highly valued public service, Wilkerson said, and Owens-Hicks shared her passion for civil rights advocacy with her brother, Bill Owens, Massachusetts’ first Black state senator.

Owens-Hicks joined her brother at the State House when she was elected in 1986 to represent the Sixth Suffolk District in the Massachusetts House. She served for 20 years, and became known for her tireless advocacy for her community, as well as her composure, elegance, and character.

“She, more than anything, was the consummate lady,” said Wilkerson. “She was the epitome of grace. . . . The way that she carried herself, the way she spoke to people — I don’t know if there’s anyone that ever would have a story about a shouting kind of conversation with her. But at the same time, everyone who knew her knew when she meant business.”

Owens-Hicks worked with Wilkerson on what she describes as the most “pivotal moment” of their time in office, getting language into the state budget to authorize the disposition of the more than 150-acre Boston State Hospital site in Mattapan.

“We were determined that we were going to see this property disposed of and designated in a way that the community benefited,” said Wilkerson. After more than 20 years of advocacy, the site was turned into more than 200 affordable family housing units, dozens of apartments, charter schools, a community center, and nearly 60 units of low-income senior housing.

Despite how long it took to get there, Wilkerson said, “It was worth it.”

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Dawn Hicks described her mother as a loving, strong, and caring person, who taught her two daughters that they can, and have the right to, accomplish anything they want.

She recalls her mother practicing what she preached, and speaking out against the treatment of young Black men during the ‘stop and frisk’ era.

“I remember being so proud of her for standing up for them, and saying how wrong it is and how their rights are being violated,” said Hicks.

An avid reader, Owens-Hicks made sure their house was always full of books. She loves to sing, her daughter said, and spend time with family.

“This is not just a daughter speaking,” said Hicks. “Being with her, growing up with her, and watching her work — even, as a child, if it wasn’t appreciated, now, as an adult, it is. She’s an amazing person.”

For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the Embrace sculpture.

This story was produced by the Globe’s Money, Power, and Inequality team, which covers the racial wealth gap in Greater Boston. You can sign up for the newsletter here.



Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.