Major Owens, 77; congressman who championed education

Community leaders in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Major R. Owens and Ben-Tzion Meltzer, in 2002.
Suzanne Plunkett/Associated Press
Community leaders in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Major R. Owens and Ben-Tzion Meltzer, in 2002.

NEW YORK — Major R. Owens, a former librarian who went to Congress from Brooklyn and remained there for 24 years, fighting for more federal aid for education and other liberal causes, died Monday in Manhattan. He was 77.

His death, at NYU Langone Medical Center, was caused by renal and heart failure, his son Chris said. Mr. Owens lived in Brooklyn. He was a state senator and a former chief administrator of New York City’s antipoverty program in 1982, when he won the US House seat vacated by the retiring Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to Congress.

Mr. Owens represented a predominantly black, Democratic swath of the borough that included Crown Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Flatbush, and Park Slope. The district encompassed stretches of severe blight and poverty along with areas of middle-class stability and pockets of affluence.


Mr. Owens viewed education as “the kingpin issue.”

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“We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education,” he wrote.

Mr. Owens spent much time shaping measures to put more US money into reducing school dropout rates, hiring teachers, and improving libraries. Many of his provisions became parts of wider education bills.

In 1985 he wrote parts of a successful bill that authorized a $100 million fund to strengthen historically black colleges. Mr. Owens said the fund was needed because “most of the historically black colleges are struggling.” He recalled his days at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he graduated in 1956.

“Most of the youngsters there were poor,” he said, and Morehouse “played a vital role of nurturing.”


Mr. Owens, considered one of the most liberal members of the House, opposed an agreement between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans to give states more flexibility in how they spent billions in federal US school aid.

“We cannot leave it up to the states,” he said. “They have not done a good job.”

Mr. Owens was a floor manager of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, aimed at curbing discrimination against handicapped people.

Mr. Owens, whose first wife, the former Ethel Werfel, was white and Jewish, frequently urged blacks and Jews to bridge their differences.

When tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews living in uneasy proximity in the Crown Heights part of his district erupted into riots in 1991, he denounced “Rambo types on both sides” who, he said, only inflamed the conflicts.


Mr. Owens was a low-key politician, but he had a colorful streak; he wrote and even performed rap lyrics, for example.

Major Robert Odell Owens was born in Collierville, Tenn. His father worked in a factory.

In 1956, the year he graduated from Morehouse, Mr. Owens married Werfel. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married the former Maria Cuprill.

He retired in 2006.

Besides his son Chris, from his first marriage, Mr. Owens leaves his wife; two other sons from his first marriage, Millard and Geoffrey, an actor who appeared on television as the son-in-law Elvin on “The Cosby Show”; three brothers; a sister; a stepson; a stepdaughter; four grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren.