The “Education Congressman”, Ex-Rep Major Owens Dies


Rep Owens, left shown with Rep. John Lewis. Photos: Lem Peterkin


Hon. Major R. Owens, a former Member of the United States House of Representatives, passed away on Monday, October 21, 2013 at the NYU/Langone Medical Center.

He was 77.

Mr. Owens had been in declining health for several months and the cause of death is believed to be cardiac arrest due to complications from renal failure and diabetes.  His wife, Maria, was at his side when he died.

A librarian by training and the first professional librarian ever elected to Congress, Major Owens served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007.  He was an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the Education Committee during his entire tenure. 

He served as a New York State Senator from 1975 to 1982 after spending six years as Commissioner of the New York City Community Development Agency under Mayor John V. Lindsay.

Congressman Owens is survived by his wife, Maria A. Owens, as well as his wife from a previous marriage, Ethel W. Owens, and five children from the two marriages — Chris, Geoffrey, Millard, Carlos and Cecilia – along with eight grandchildren. 

Mr. Owens is also survived by four siblings – Ezekiel Owens, Jr., Edna Owens, Mack Owens, and Bobby Owens.

Cards may be sent to The Owens Family, 135 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY  11238. 

The family is requesting that all calls be made to (518) 556-1052 and emails be sent to [email protected].

In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission, a 501-c-3 non-profit organization.

Funeral arrangements and other information will be posted when available.


Born Robert Odell Owens in Collierville, Tennessee on June 28, 1936, Major Owens was raised in the Memphis area by his parents, Ezekiel Owens, Sr., and Edna Davis Owens.  He attended Alexander Hamilton High School, leaving at age 16 to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta on a Ford Foundation scholarship.  His classmates included the late Maynard Jackson (former Mayor of Atlanta), Don Clendenin (former star of the New York Mets), and Rev. William Guy (father of actress Jasmine Guy).

Remembered as a quiet, brilliant and stubborn young man, Major Owens received his B.A. in Mathematics from Morehouse in 1956, with a minor in Education and Library Science, and then received his M.S. in Library Science from Atlanta University one year later.  After traveling and studying in Europe, Owens moved to New York City, settling in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood.  He joined the staff of the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch at Grand Army Plaza.  Owens became the Community Coordinator at the Brownsville branch in 1964, where he started to grow his political roots.

While with the library, Major Owens became active in local community action and the Civil Rights Movement.  As a member of the Congress of Racial Equality’s Brooklyn chapter, Owens worked to fight racism within New York City and employment discrimination.  The organization used the threat of blocking traffic at the 1964 World’s Fair as a political tool, foreshadowing future actions.  As the Vice President of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, Owens orchestrated a rent strike that included a new tactic — the placement of tenant rents in escrow accounts.

In 1966, Major Owens was asked to assist the nascent Brownsville Community Development Corporation in obtaining funds through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  Owens was successful and became the Corporation’s Executive Director.  The BCDC became one of New York City’s most successful community action programs, with Head Start and manpower development.  BCDC is currently the sponsor of the Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center, the first free-standing Federally Qualified Community Health Center to secure Joint Commission Accreditation in Brooklyn.

Owens’ work was brought to the attention of Mayor John V. Lindsay, who recruited him to serve as Commissioner of the New York City Community Development Agency (CDA), with oversight over all of the City’s anti-poverty programs.  Owens was Commissioner from 1968 – two weeks after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – through the end of the Lindsay administration in 1973.  In this position, Major Owens was responsible for 500 grass-roots agencies throughout the City’s 26 designated poverty areas.  At its peak, the program funding surpassed $100 million.

While leading the Community Media Library Program at Columbia University’s School of Library Science, Major Owens launched his campaign for the New York State Senate from Brooklyn’s 17th District.  This Senate district was an open seat created in 1974 as a result of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.  Owens defeated two opponents in the Democratic Primary, guaranteeing him the election. 



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