Major Owens

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Major Owens
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from New York
In office
January 3, 1983 – January 3, 2007
Preceded byShirley Chisholm
Succeeded byYvette Clarke
Constituency12th district (1983–93)
11th district (1993–2007)
Member of the New York State Senate
from the 17th district
In office
January 1, 1975 – December 31, 1982
Preceded byChester J. Straub
Succeeded byHoward E. Babbush
Personal details
Major Robert Odell Owens

(1936-06-28)June 28, 1936
Collierville, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedOctober 21, 2013(2013-10-21) (aged 77)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Other political
Democratic Socialists of America
Spouse(s)Ethel Werfel
Maria Cuprill
Children5, including Geoffrey
Alma materMorehouse College (BA)
Clark Atlanta University (MS)

Major Robert Odell Owens (June 28, 1936 – October 21, 2013) was an American politician and librarian who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007, representing the New York's 11th and then 12th congressional district. He was first elected to replace retiring Representative Shirley Chisholm. Owens shepherded the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 through the House. He retired at the end of his term in January 2007 and was succeeded by Yvette Clarke.

Early life and education[edit]

Owens was born on June 28, 1936, in Collierville, Tennessee, to Ezekiel and Edna Owens.[1] He was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and his father worked in a furniture factory as a laborer. He received a bachelor's degree in 1956 from Morehouse College, and a master's degree in library science in 1957 from Atlanta University, now known as Clark Atlanta.[2]



Owens began his career in librarianship.[3] After obtaining his master's degree, Owens settled in Brooklyn, New York and began his career as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library from 1958 through the late 1960s. At the same time, Owens became active in the Congress of Racial Equality and other community groups. Owens, a community information librarian, became known for "placing Brooklyn Public Library collections in public places such as laundromats, stores, bars, and anywhere people gathered." In 1969, Owens worked with a group of other New York librarians, including Miriam Braverman, Anne Littlejohn, Betty-Carol Sellen, Joan Marshall, Hardy R. Franklin, Pat Schuman, Andrew Armitage, and Mitch Freedman, to establish the New York Social Responsibilities Round Table. This organization became part of the New York Library Association and its mission was "to create a central position for libraries and librarians in the battles for civil rights, social justice, peace, and ever-improved public access to education and information."

Although having moved from his career in librarianship into his political career, in 1979 and 1991, Owens was a featured speaker at the White House Conference on Libraries sponsored by the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. In 1987, Owens was awarded the American Library Association Honorary Membership, its highest honor.[4]


In 1968, New York City Mayor John Lindsay made Owens the commissioner of New York City's Community Development Agency.[5] After serving in this position for approximately five years, successfully ran for and was elected to the New York Senate. He was a member of the New York State Senate from 1975 to 1982, sitting in the 181st, 182nd, 183rd and 184th New York State Legislatures.[6]

In 1982, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, replacing the retiring Shirley Chisholm, where he remained until his retirement in 2006. Owens became known as "The Librarian In Congress." Owens's career in Congress is marked by his advocacy for and support of library funding and education issues; in particular public libraries, school libraries, and librarianship. In Congress, he worked closely with American Disability activist Justin Whitlock Dart who often was visiting his office in Capitol Hill and provided testimony before Owen's Subcommittee on Select Education in the House, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the passage of the ADA when it was being heatedly debated.[7] Owens served as floor manager of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and aided in its enactment.[4]

Owens represented a diverse district located within Brooklyn, New York, which included many African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Jewish Americans, including a large Hasidic Jewish community. His district included low income areas of Brownsville, a large Hasidic area of Crown Heights, the heavily Caribbean areas of Flatbush and East Flatbush, and the now upscale neighborhood of Park Slope. Although Owens won the 2004 Democratic primary with just 45.44% of the vote,[8] he was re-elected in 2004 general election with 94% of the vote. In 2006, Owens decided to retire at the end of his term (January 2007). In the 2006 election, Yvette Clarke, who had run against Owens in the 2004 primary, won the election and became Owens successor.

Owens was one of 31 House Democrats who voted to not count the 20 electoral votes from Ohio in the 2004 United States presidential election.[9] Republican President George W. Bush won Ohio by 118,457 votes.[10] Without Ohio's electoral votes, the election would have been decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, with each state having one vote in accordance with the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

He was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He received an "A" on the Drum Major Institute's 2005 Congressional Scorecard on middle-class issues.[11][12]

Later career[edit]

In 2006, Owens decided to not pursue re-election and retired from Congress, thereby ending his political career. Owens indicated that he wanted to spend his time writing novels and poetry. In 2006 after Owens's retirement decision, the Librarian of Congress announced that Owens would be appointed as a distinguished visiting scholar at the John W. Kluge Center with the position to commence in January 2007. During his time at the John W. Kluge Center, Owens's work focused "on a case study of the Congressional Black Caucus and its impact on national politics."[13] Owens used his time at the Kluge Center to research and write his book The Peacock Elite: A Subjective Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus and Its Impact on National Politics, which was published in 2011.[14] Owens served as a senior fellow for the DuBois-Bunche Center for Public Policy at Medgar Evers College.[15]

Personal life[edit]

Owens was married twice. His first marriage to Ethel Werfel ended in divorce after twenty-five years. From his marriage to Ethel, Owens had three sons: Brooklyn politician Chris Owens, actor Geoffrey Owens (best known for playing "Elvin" on The Cosby Show), and Millard Owens. He then married Maria A. Cuprill (Maria Owens), and the couple had two children.[2]

Owens died October 21, 2013, in New York City of congestive heart failure. He was 77.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Major Owens Remembered". The eBulletin. New York Library Association. Archived from the original on September 23, 2020. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  2. ^ a b Bernstein, Adam (24 October 2013). "Major Owens: Librarian, politician and author". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on November 16, 2018. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  3. ^ Berry, John (3 December 2013). "Major Owens: Years in politics but always a librarian". Library Journal. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  4. ^ a b "2013-2014 ALA Memorial #2 - Memorial Resolution for Major Owens" (PDF). ALA. American Library Association. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  5. ^ "Former Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens dies aged 77". NY Daily News. 22 October 2013. Retrieved October 22, 2013.
  6. ^ "Featured African Americans" profile, Library of Congress (
  7. ^ Byzek, Josie. "Major SAYS: An interview with Rep. Major Owens". Mouth Magazine. No. September/October 1999. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
  8. ^ NYC Board of Elections. "Primary Election Kings" (PDF). Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  9. ^ "Final vote results for roll call 007". Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  10. ^ Salvato, Albert (2004-12-29). "Ohio Recount Gives a Smaller Margin to Bush (Published 2004)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-03-03.
  11. ^ "". Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  12. ^ "Congress at the Midterm: Their 2005 Middle Class Record" (PDF). Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2006. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  13. ^ "US Congressman Major Owens Named Distinguished Visiting Scholar at John W. Kluge Center". Library of Congress. 26 December 2006. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  14. ^ "Hon. Major R. Owens". Library of Congress. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  15. ^ "DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy: Faculty". Medgar Evers College. Archived from the original on 28 November 2016. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  16. ^ "Former Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens dies aged 77". NY Daily News. 22 October 2013. Retrieved 22 October 2013.

External links[edit]

New York State Senate
Preceded by New York State Senate
17th District

Succeeded by
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 12th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 11th congressional district

Succeeded by