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Major Owens Collection

Call Number



1957-2013, inclusive


Owens, Major R. (Major Robert Odell)


30 Linear Feet in 13 record cartons, 2 oversize flat boxes, 2 document boxes, and 16 custom boxes in various sizes.

Language of Materials

English .


Materials documenting the life and career of Congressman Major Owens (1936-2013), a Brooklyn based writer, educator, librarian and community organizer. Items include photographs, clippings, audiovisual materials, writing samples, congressional materials and correspondence.

Biographical Note

The "Librarian in Congress," Major Robert Odell Owens was born on June 28, 1936 in Collierville, Tennessee to Ezekiel and Edna Owens. Owens attended Hamilton High School in Memphis, enrolling in Morehouse College after being awarded a Ford Foundation Scholarship. He graduated in 1956 with a B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in Education and Library Science. In 1957, he earned a M.A. in Library Science from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), followed by classes at the Alliance Française and Sorbonne in Paris.

While at Morehouse, Owens began a relationship with Professor Ethel Werfel, who he married in 1956. After returning to the United States, they moved to her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, where he worked as a Librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library's Brownsville branch, serving as Assistant Director of Languages and Literature from 1958-1964 and as the Library's Brownsville Community Coordinator from 1964-1966. It was during these years he became involved in the city's social justice movements, joining the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and serving as the organization's chair from 1964-1966. He also participated on the Brooklyn Rent Strike Committee, served as vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing and as a board member of Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action.

Owens founded and served as Director of the Brownsville Community Council from 1966-1968. During that time, the Council opened five neighborhood action centers to address jobs, education and housing, founded the first federal credit union to be operated by an anti-poverty agency and operated Head Start daycare centers for more than 300 children. The Council won designation by the Council Against Poverty as Brownsville's Community Corporation in January 1967. Owens left the Council after being appointed Commissioner of the Community Development Agency by Mayor John Lindsay, but he resigned in 1973, citing ongoing corruption within the agency. After leaving the CDA, Owens joined Columbia University as an adjunct professor, teaching Library Science and as Director of the school's Community Media Program.

In 1974, Owens campaigned and was elected to the New York State Senate. He served from 1975-1982, participating on the Social Services Committee, the Finance Committee, and as a member of the chamber's daycare task force. In 1982, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announced her retirement, leaving a vacant seat in the city's 12th district, which included the neighborhoods of Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Crown Heights. Owens campaigned against former New York State Senator Vander L. Beatty in the primary, securing a victory and winning the election against Republican David Katan with 91% of the vote. In his first Congressional term he was assigned to the Government Operations Committee and Education and Labor Committee. He also joined the Congressional Black Caucus, eventually serving as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Higher Education Brain Trust, Taskforce on Haiti, and Alternative Budgets for the fiscal years 1986-2004.

In 1985, Owens 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's elementary, middle and high school students focusing on the life and work of Dr. King. The Commission also holds monthly meetings open to the community, holds college prep workshops, participates in campaigns to secure better school funding and sponsored the Clara Barton Bill of Rights Debate Team. The "Education Congressman" also spent 1985 writing portions of Title IIIB, a higher education bill that provided $100 million to improve the programs and the infrastructure of historically Black colleges. Owens and Ethel Werfel also divorced in September of 1985. He married Maria Cuprill in May 1988.

Owens became chair of the Education and Labor Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights in 1987, a post he would hold until 1994. He oversaw programs to assist in the high school dropout crisis in the inner cities and fought to restore federal funding to libraries. In addition to jobs and education, Owens fought for the rights of Americans with disabilities. Working closely with activist Justin Dart Jr., he served as primary backer and floor manager of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This landmark legislation provided guidelines prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons and provided access guidelines for public buildings.

The 1990 census forced a redrawing of Brooklyn's congressional districts. Owens' constituency was now the 11th district, and included the neighborhoods of Park Slope and Kensington. It was also the second largest Haitian community in the United States, which often found itself at odds with Owens. Hatian constituents accused him of being out of touch with the local community, citing his vocal support of former Haitian President Jean–Bertrand Aristide. In 2000, he was challenged in the primary by Jamacian born Una Clarke. Relying on support of prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, he won the primary with a 54 to 46 percent margin. Owens announced plans to seek a final reelection in 2004 and retire in 2007. His 2004 primary was met with challenges from New York City council members Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke, daughter of his 2000 primary opponent Una Clarke. He won the primary with 45% of the vote. During his final term, Owens' son Chris campaigned for his father's seat, but lost to Yvette Clarke.

Owens' retirement from Congress was followed by his selection as a distinguished visiting scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. This opportunity provided a stipend and access to the Library's collections to complete a research project of his choosing. He selected a short history of the Congressional Black Caucus, including a look at key legislation, relationships, and Owens' own suggestion for the future of the Caucus. His work resulted in the 2011 publication of The Peacock Elite: A Subjective Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus and Its Impact on National Politics.

In addition to being a politician and community activist, Owens considered himself a writer, and saw retirement as an opportunity to continue work on his novels and plays. His longest project, Roots and Wings, is loosely based on Owens' college experience, taking place at a southern college during the civil rights movement. 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; The Viagra Monologues, a play that uses rap lyrics to talk about sexual experience from the male point of view; and The Taliban in Harlem, a 2005 unpublished novel about a militant style church brainwashing it's followers.

In addition to novels and plays, Owens wrote and performed raps, which he called "rap poems" or "egghead raps." His lyrics appeared in the Congressional Record and were performed on the House floor, covering a variety of topics including poverty, anti-war protests, racism, and criticism of his political rivals. Lyrics like "Make culture not war! Be loud about our love, Put passion in your dove; Shoot your best shot! Trivial sparks make profound fires.." earned him the nickname "Rappin Rep." He also wrote many non-political lyrics, including Zodiac Raps, a series of raps inspired by the signs of the Zodiac.

Owens also used his retirement to return to teaching, bringing his 50 years of experience to the DuBois-Bunch Policy Center at Medgar Evers College, with classes in nonprofit administration, designing local programs, and social policy agenda. He also served as faculty advisor on the Bedford-Union Armory project, continuing to teach as his health declined. Major Owens died of heart failure on October 21, 2013 in New York City.


Series I: Writing is organized alphabetically by title, with rap poems, statements and blog posts appearing at the end.

Series II: Friends of Major Owens is organized alphabetically by topic, with the exception of "pins" which appear at the end of the series and oversize items, which are housed separately.

Series III: Teaching is organized alphabetically by topic.

Series IV: Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission is organized alphabetically by topic.

Series V: Personal is organized alphabetically by topic. Programs are arranged chronologically, with oversized items housed separately.

Series VI: Congressional is organized alphabetically by topic

Series VII: Clippings are foldered chronologically, with the exception of articles concerning Louis Farrakhan, which are foldered separately and retain Owens' original folder heading. Clippings originally housed in scrapbooks and with Owens's Teaching and Martin Luther King Commission materials are housed with their respective series.

Series VIII: Photographs and Scrapbooks is arranged chronologically and by topic wherever possible. Scrapbook pages are foldered by book in original order. The bulk of photographs are unarranged and unlabeled. Binders 9 and 10 are duplicates.

Series IX: Audiovisual Materials is not arranged, however an item list is included in each box.

Series X: Awards are grouped by material and size, arranged chronologically. Larger and more delicate awards are housed separately in individual boxes.

Scope and Contents

This collection consists of materials documenting the life and career of Congressman Major Owens. Writings include one published case study, plays, and unpublished novels with various revisions and states of completion. Raps are published in copies of the Congressional Record and handwritten. Also included in this series are books written by others, presumably used as research for his own work. Friends of Major Owens includes all campaign materials such as flyers, pamphlets, tee shirts, pins and informational packets. Fundraising materials and documentation are included in this series, as well as handwritten speeches.

Teaching includes materials from Owens' years as a professor at the DuBois-Bunch Policy Center at Medgar Evers College. Official syllabi and course papers as well as correspondence, conference materials, and general notes are included. Administrative items include surveys, tuition information, club paperwork and planning documents. Materials from the Bedford-Union Armory project include notes, proposals, and budget information. An ID from his time teaching at Columbia University is housed in the Administrative folder. The bulk of the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission series contains program materials. The series also contains flyers and clippings and administrative documents.

Personal materials include items used by Owens' in his daily life such as a wallet, briefcase and various licence plates. The bulk of the series contains programs for events celebrating the accomplishments of Owens and others, including his annual Beacon of Hope and Lifetime Struggle and Achievement Awards. Congressional materials contain items from Owens' years as a Congressman (1983-2007), including research for his work in education, housing, Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina. Items from the Congressional Black Caucus include programs, budgets and correspondence. Speeches and statements include Owens' positions on various topics, including the Million Man March, No Child Left Behind, and the closing of Freedom National Bank. Correspondence is incoming and outgoing, mostly from fellow politicians and community members regarding national and local issues.

Clippings cover topics including Owens' career, local politics, and social justice issues. Scrapbooks document career highlights from 1968-1990 and include clippings, photographs and correspondence. The bulk of the photographs show Owens and acquaintances at various political and social events, including programs sponsored by the Martin Luther King Commission. Cassettes, VHS tapes, floppy discs, and compact discs make up the audiovisual series. Cassettes and compact discs are recordings of Major and Jeffery Owens' interviews, commercial music, sermons and gospels, and a personal recording by Ethel Owens. The bulk of VHS tapes are recordings of Owens appearing on the House floor, interviews on local news, and two of his birthday parties. Floppy disks contain speeches, correspondence, raps, photographs and statements in various file formats. Awards are a collection of various glass, wood and metal awards presented to Owens over the course of his career.


Collection is located in the Center for Brooklyn History at the Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza. The collection may only be used in the library and is not available through interlibrary loan. Requests to view the collection must be made at least 48 hours in advance of visit.


While many items in the Center for Brooklyn History are unrestricted, we do not own reproduction rights to all materials. Be aware of the several kinds of rights that might apply: copyright, licensing and trademarks. The researcher assumes all responsibility for copyright questions.

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as the Major Owens Collection, Brooklyn Public Library – Center for Brooklyn History.


This collection was donated by Maria Cuprill-Owens in 2019.

Collection processed by

Sarah Quick, Reference Archivist

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 11:21:24 +0000.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Description is written in: English, Latin script.


Brooklyn Collection
Center for Brooklyn History
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201