I will NEVER FORGET that evening in 1975 when a group of librarians gathered to hear Major R. Owens, an African American librarian from Brooklyn, as he began his first campaign for public office. We all came together at the loft where I lived on New York’s Upper West Side.
I was devastated when I heard of his death in late October.
Owens (1936–2013) won that election and served in the New York State Senate until 1982. He then went on to win the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that had been held by Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman ever elected to Congress; he served there for 24 years. Both at the state and federal levels, Owens always supported library funding, as well as legislation that improved education and aided minorities, the poor, and the disabled.
Major and I had become friends long before his career as a legislator began, working together with other librarians on many political and library issues. He teamed up with a group of New York librarians that included Miriam Braverman, Anne Littlejohn, Betty-Carol Sellen, Joan Marshall, and Hardy Franklin from the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), along with Pat Schuman, Andrew Armitage, Mitch Freedman, and many other members of the new library organization called the New York Social Responsibilities Round Table (NYSRRT). We were part of the new national movement 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. NYSRRT sent leaders to the American Library Association (ALA) conference to create the Social Responsibilities Round Table.
Owens and Franklin served as community information librarians on the streets of Brooklyn, placing BPL collections in public places such as laundromats, stores, bars, and anywhere people gathered. Later, Owens and Braverman used what they had learned in their BPL positions to develop a Community Media Librarian program at the now defunct School of Library Service at Columbia University.
Major was a natural teacher. In one of our discussions, I had expressed the view that it might not be appropriate for libraries to spend tax dollars to supply movies and other entertainments to the public. “John, I have a lot of children. It would cost me more than $150 to take my family to a concert or movie. We can borrow one from the library and watch it at home for nothing,” Major said, adding, “The cost of movie tickets should not deprive the poor of the social and cultural enrichment others get.”
Throughout Major’s librarian career, we walked picket lines together, marched in protests, and organized fellow librarians to join workers, minorities, the poor, and people in general in their struggles for information, education, and a fair shake. Even when he was head of the city’s poverty programs under Mayor John V. Lindsay, Major would join us.
Later, during their respective terms as ALA president, both Schuman and Freedman held fundraising events for Major’s campaigns at ALA conferences. We all organized such events for him around New York. Schuman says Owens told her that librarians always donated money, but they were the only ones who never asked him for anything.
I was pleased that the obituary in the New York Times listed “librarian” as the first of Owens’s jobs mentioned. He was among the first to define the important place of libraries in the struggle to provide the people with access to the information they would need to improve their lives, govern themselves, and build a just society.
We’ll miss Major Owens here in New York and in America. We’ll miss the only librarian in Congress. I’ll miss my old friend but be strengthened by my memories of him and the times we shared.
Schuman likes to recall when Major said he had dreamed that a spaceship had landed on Earth, and when the alien emerged to meet a human, it said, “Take me to your librarian!” I would take that alien to Major Owens.