The Librarian in Congress: The Life and Work of Major Owens

Michelle Montalbano

Representing Brooklyn

From his roots as a librarian here at Brooklyn Public Library, to his ascent to the New York State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, Major Owens' legacy is defined by his work as a tireless antipoverty reformer and as an advocate for education, civil rights, Americans with disabilities, workers' rights, and immigrants. As Brooklyn Public Library cautiously opens the doors to Central Library and a handful of other branches a little further this month, we are also unveiling renovations and improvements that have taken place during our closure, including the Major Owens Welcome Center in the main lobby. As our contribution to the dedication ceremonies, staff from the Center for Brooklyn History have completed processing a newly acquired collection of his papers and curated an exhibition to spotlight Major Owens' life and work. The materials selected for this exhibition celebrate his lifelong commitment to political and economic empowerment, and include never before seen photographs of the Congressman, handwritten and typed speeches, publications, campaign flyers, personal ephemera, and more. An avid writer, this exhibition also features manuscripts of his plays and novels, as well as what he coined "rap poetry," for which he earned the name, "The Rappin' Rep."

Congressman Major Owens, U.S. House of Representatives, 1983-2006. 
Major Owens Collection, Brooklyn Public Library – Center for Brooklyn History

Born in 1936 in Collierville, Tennessee, Major Robert Odell Owens grew up in the South and attended Morehouse College on a Ford Foundation scholarship, graduating in 1956. He earned his Masters in Library Science from historically Black Clark Atlanta University just one year later. Owens began his career as a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, and as a community organizer and civil rights activist, devoting himself to fighting racism and employment discrimination within New York City--eventually even chairing the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) between 1964-1966.

Major Owens was a librarian at both the Central and Brownsville branches of BPL, where he served as Community Information Librarian and Community Coordinator, as well as the Assistant Director of Languages and Literature between 1958-1966. In 1971, Owens penned a call to action for a justice-oriented issue of Library Journal, advocating for a new library model that centers the importance of adult education, while urging branch librarians to "see the library as an instrument for the total community action effort." From here, he was appointed Commissioner of the Community Development Agency (CDA) under Mayor John Lindsay's administration, where he was at the forefront of antipoverty efforts in Brownsville and chairman of Central Brooklyn Mobilization for Political Action until 1974. With all this experience under his belt, it was a natural next step to lead the Community Media Library Program at Columbia University’s School of Library Science, the position from which he launched his successful bid to represent Brooklyn’s 17th District in the New York State Senate.

Brochure, Columbia University Masters
in Library Science Program, 1971, 
Major Owens Collection. ​

Owens took office in 1975, where he would serve until 1982. He advocated for federal money for education and libraries, dovetailing with his longtime priorities and the needs of his district, which comprised the predominantly Black  neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Crown Heights. In 1990, his district was expanded to include the western borders of Park Slope and Kensington. 

In 1983, Owens became the first professional librarian elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, officially succeeding Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. He won each of the 10 subsequent elections before his retirement with at least 89% of the vote. Known as "The Librarian in Congress," Major Owens was also on the Education, Workforce, Government Reform, Education and Labor Subcommittee on Select Education, and Civil Rights committees during his tenure, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Progressive Caucus. 

Major Owens also supported progressive workers' rights issues throughout his career, and in the late 1990s, this included raising the federal minimum wage and protecting overtime pay and OSHA safety standards, while also defending organized labor--a particularly maverick stance at that time. 

In 1985, he founded the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission. This volunteer-led organization is still in operation, holding annual “Living the Dream” essay, poetry, and art contests for Brooklyn students that focus on Dr. King's legacy. He was also a key backer of the Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act in 1989; the primary backer and a floor manager of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990; and was awarded the American Library Association's highest honor in 1996.

The following bills are just a portion of Congressman Owens’ legacy on the House floor: 

  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In 1986, Congressman Owens engineered the passage of a Title IIIB amendment to the Higher Education Assistance Act, which for the first time, created a permanent stream of assistance for more than 100 financially-strapped HBCUs. 
  • Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act (1989). Owens was a key backer of this bill, which encourages States to maintain funding mechanisms for programs of child abuse prevention and treatment.
  • Americans With Disabilities Act (1990). With more than 50% of the ADA under the jurisdiction of his Subcommittee, Congressman Owens formed a coalition of advocates, Civil Rights leaders and elected officials to launch a 50-state campaign to improve and then pass the ADA. 
  • Title I funding for elementary and secondary education. Owens proposed a reformulation of the funding criteria that resulted in millions more in federal funding for Brooklyn students and schools.
Roots and Wings

Owens saw retirement as an opportunity to devote his time to writing novels, plays, and his only published work, The Peacock Elite. His most ambitious project, Roots and Wings, is an autobiographical novel loosely based on his own experience at a Southern college during the civil rights movement. First completed in 1963, he was working to revise the novel up until his death. Other notable works include Thomas and Sally, a play about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; For Colored Boys Who Have Been Put Down One Time Too Many, a longform work of poetry in the oral tradition inspired equally by Richard Pryor and William Shakespeare, about which Owens writes, "Shakespearean rhythms, imagery, sound patterns, and figures of speech are the proper vehicles for conveying the suffering, power, and passion of Black men"; and The Taliban in Harlem, an unpublished, 2005 FBI thriller about domestic terrorism in the form of a militant church in Harlem that brainwashes its followers.  

In addition to novels and plays, Owens wrote and performed raps, which he called “rap poems,” “egghead raps,” and "poetic outbursts." His lyrics appeared in the Congressional Record and were performed on the House floor, covering a variety of topics including poverty, antiwar protests, racism, and criticism of his political rivals. 

Rap Lines, 1991-1992, Major Owens Collection

Upon retiring in 2006, Owens was a Senior Fellow for the DuBois-Bunche Center for Public Policy at Medgar Evers College, located in the heart of his congressional district. He was also appointed distinguished visiting scholar at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, a residency that allowed him to complete his case study on the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), The Peacock Elite (2011). The book is a history of the CBC, which formed in 1971, nearly 100 years after the first Black Congressmember was elected. Central themes of the work include the classification scheme he devised, placing his CBC colleagues into two camps, "peacocks" and "workhorses," based on their personal working styles. Shirley Chisholm was a prime example of what Owens termed a "peacock" style politician. Nicknamed "Fighting Shirley," she was not only a trailblazer, she was a vocal and unflinching critic of contemporary politics-as-usual. Other highlights from Peacock include a riveting account of how the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) saved the life of the first democratically-elected Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On the brink of being deposed and exiled, CBC members pressured the White House to take action. This is reminiscent of Owens' CORE days, when he called for blockading highway traffic during the 1964 World's Fair, a disruptive action with its roots in the fight for Black freedom that we have seen used in ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It also hit home the continued imperative of the CBC to complete the mission begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. 

Major Owens lived in Prospect Heights with his family until his death in 2013. He was previously married to Ethel Werfel Owens. They were married in 1956 and divorced in 1985. He married Maria A. Owens in 1989; each had children from a previous marriage. The blended family of Major and Maria included five children: Chris, Geoffrey, Millard, Carlos, and Cecilia, and eight grandchildren. 

Campaign flyer, Brooklyn's 12th Congressional District, 1982, Major Owens Collection

 

 

This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.

 

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