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Bill Owens, first Black state senator in Massachusetts, dies at 84

Massachusetts State Senator William Owens (center), in 1976 addressed a City Hall Plaza press conference the day after the assault on Ted Landsmark. State Representative Doris Bunte (left), also appeared.Ted Dully/Ted Dully/Globe Staff

A historic figure in Massachusetts politics, Bill Owens was the first Black candidate elected to the state Senate during a career in which he was ahead of his time with proposals such as calling for governments to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black Americans.

Mr. Owens, who served one term as a state representative before spending several terms in the Senate, was 84 when he died Saturday in a skilled nursing facility in Brighton.

He had moved there a few months earlier from his longtime home in Mattapan as his health was failing, and more recently he tested positive for COVID-19, his family said.


Boston Mayor Michelle Wu tweeted that she was “heartbroken” to hear that Mr. Owens had died.

The legacy of his barrier-breaking election to the Senate “lives on in our work to serve every community & in the continued fight for racial equality,” she said.

US Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who was first elected a state representative in 1972 in the incoming class of lawmakers that included Mr. Owens, considered him a mentor.

“Bill and I came in together as freshmen state representatives,” Markey said in a statement. “It was a time of unprecedented historical consequence both nationally and in the Commonwealth, and no one was better positioned to lead than Bill Owens.”

The two worked with Doris Bunte, the first Black woman elected to be a state representative in Massachusetts, “to create the first majority Black Senate District,” Markey said.

“That first Black state senator needed to have a loud voice, and Bill Owens’s was as resonant and powerful and lasting as history required,” Markey added.

During his time in office, Mr. Owens was a force in helping to create the state Office of Minority Business Assistance and the Summer Youth Jobs Program, Markey recalled, and Mr. Owens’s advocacy laid the groundwork for the adoption of an assault weapons ban in Boston.


Born in Alabama in 1937, William Owens moved to Massachusetts at 15 and graduated from Boston English High School. He attended Boston University and opened dry-cleaning businesses in his 20s, and later graduated with a master’s in education from Harvard University.

“The world has lost a gem,” his family said in a statement. “We love him deeply. We are fortunate to have had him for 84 years and to call him family.”

Complete information about Mr. Owens’s survivors and plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

In the late 1980s, before the topic had become as prominent as it is now, Senator Bill Owens sponsored a bill that would have required state government to pay reparations to Massachusetts descendants of enslaved Black Americans.

The state participated in and benefited from the slave trade, he told The Boston Globe in early 1989, and so government should pay reparations because those long-ago actions deprived a group of its livelihood.

“You can call it racism if you wish,” he said then, “but it’s the result of what happened during slavery.”

A complete obituary will follow.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at