WHY IS FORMER CONGRESSMAN MAJOR OWENS LIQUIDATING HIS OFFICE?
By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Major Owens, former Congressman from Brooklyn’s 11th Congressional District served in Congress for 24 years, from 1983 to 2007. During that time he set quite a record as the “Education Congressman.” Over his lifetime as a public servant, Owens has served more than 35 years in public service. With that kind of history, one would think that historical archives housing his works, plaques and other accomplishments would have been erected in Brooklyn by now.
Instead, Major Owen is liquidating his office. He is giving away or throwing away almost everything from his former Brooklyn congressional headquarters at 289 Utica Avenue. Not because he wants to, but because he has to. He has no place to put the considerable collection of memorabilia and valuable documents he has accumulated over the years he served in Congress. Trained as a librarian and civil rights activist, even after retirement Major Owens continues to be a community reformer, and currently serves as chair of the CENTRAL BROOKLYN MARTIN LUTHER KING COMMISSION, and therefore continues to be a force in history for his community.
That his material is being liquidated, rather than preserved is a major concern because Black people have considerable contemporary heroes and sheroes in our midst, but very little to herald their accomplishments. As usual, our history may well be left in the hands of a few paragraoguc mentions in the mainstream media and tabloids, but the real meat of the information is left to chance; or completely overlooked.
As I walked through the now defunct office, I saw boxes and boxes of books, papers, albums. There were plaques and awards still on the wall of the now empty office. Other boxes held equipment no longer used for communicating with the public or disseminating information to his constituents. Congressman Owens has amassed such a wealth of material that even his private bathroom was piled high with material.
When asked why he was getting rid of all his material, he said, somewhat sadly, “I have no place to put them. We had started applying for a grant to archive these documents, but the economic downturn sort of got in the way, and stalled the process.” The “we” he referred to was former New York State Assemblymenber, Roger Greene.
Now I guess those of us who are economically challenged might ask, “why should that concern me?” Even in the worst of economic times, we owe it to ourselves to maintain the history of our communities for ourselves and our children. The fact that Owens, as well as Congressman Edolphus Towns, Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Congressman Charles Rangel (NYC), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (NYC), Congressman Floyd Flake (Queens), Congressman Greg Meeks (Queens), have all valiantly worked in behalf of the Black community, perhaps paving the way for those who will seek the office after them; the fact that we have children who need to know these individuals and look with pride upon their accomplishments (and perhaps even their failures); is important to our future.
As Carter G. Woodson, author of the Mis-Education of the Negro, so appropriately stated 70 years ago, if we don’t tell our own story, if we don’t value our own history, no one else will. To give you a snapshot of just how significant the preservation of his body of works are to us as Black people, let me give you just an overview of who Major Owens is:
He is a walking wealth of education and information. A former librarian and activist, he served on Congress’ Education and Labor Committee (later Education and the Workforce) and the Government Operations Committee (later Government Reform). He remained on both panels throughout his House career. As the “Education Congressman”, Owens was in the forefront of legislation that established the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which set forth the standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and guidelines prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in businesses and public spaces. It further established standards for public accessibility to buildings. The act promoted development programs for preschool children and to introduce new technologies to assist students with disabilities, both physical and developmental.
During his twelve terms, Owens was one of the most vociferous advocates for education: “A civilized and moral government which is also seeking to enhance its own self-interest must strive to maximize the opportunities for the educational development, equal access and productive employment of all its citizens. Greater than all the physical barriers are the barriers of entrenched attitudes and the silent insistence that people with disabilities should be grateful for minimal governmental protection and assistance.” And “Education is the kingpin issue. The proper nurturing of and attention to the educational process will achieve a positive domino reaction which will benefit employment and economic development.… The greater the education, the lesser the victimization by drugs, alcoholism, and swindles.… We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education.” (from Black Americans in Congress: Major Owens)
Prior to his retirement, Owens was the third-ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce and the Government Reform committees. In addition, he served as the Ranking Minority Member on the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Owens also was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Progressive Caucus.
During the 90’s, Congressman Owens pledged to “push the prerogatives of a congressman to the limit” to publicize the needs of inner-city Americans. “My principal focus is on jobs and employment. From my perspective the Democratic-controlled House has been extremely negligent in this area. It has shown little, if any, urgency about the plight of the unemployed.” He advocated for more federal money for education and libraries, and focused on restoring federal funds for library services, institutions of higher learning, and programs to alleviate the high school dropout crisis in the black community.
In 1985, he wrote portions of a higher education bill that provided a fund of $100 million to improve the programs and the infrastructure of historically Black colleges (Owens is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA). He called the measure “the payment of a long overdue debt.” He served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Higher Education Brain Trust, and advocated that funds that were used to fuel the Cold War, be “shifted from military to domestic programs should be appropriated for American inner cities. “We need our fair share of this peace divided, in particular to rehabilitate crumbling and dilapidated inner-city schools, and to guarantee a first-rate education for urban youths,” he said. On the House Floor in 1990, he belted out some lines from a rap song he wrote: “At the big white DC mansion/There’s a meeting of the mob/And the question on the table/Is which beggars they will rob.” He later became known as the “Rapping Congressman,” and still writes rap lyrics to depict issues of urgency.
Since many of his constituents were of Caribbean descent, Owens also sponsored two pieces of legislation that were important to immigrants: a bill that prevented the Immigration and Naturalization Service from deporting the parents of American-born children under age 18 and a measure that extended citizenship to immigrant children under age 12 who were in the U.S. without their parents.
Additionally, he was a key backer of the Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act of 1989, which renewed a measure first passed in 1974. The bill provided states federal funding to assess, investigate, and prosecute cases of child abuse; conduct research; and compile data. The bill also defined child abuse and neglect.
To say the least, a synopsis of Congressman Owen’s contribution would actually fill a book -- I just wanted to give you an overview of how he has impacted our lives in so many ways -- ways that are not highlighted unless you search the archives of the Congressional Record, or you know the Congressman personally. When the news talks about Americans with Disability Act, (ADA), few, if any, realize that it was a Black man who spearheaded this program. How many more, in addition to Owens, have contributed to our well being?
That said, what do we as a community who has benefited from Owen’s years of service, do to preserve his archives, and those who will come behind him? While I’m sure that we may have a few hidden millionaires in our midst who just might be able to pony up with the funds to make this happen, I want to put forth some recommendations that will not only assist Congressman Owens, but may well be the answer to the underwriting of other programs that are of benefit to the Black community, but have gone begging, largely because the many mainstream charitable organizations don’t necessarily value what we value.
One of the major things that needs to be done is the re-establishment of the Black United Fund of New York, (BUFNY), immediately, if not sooner. As you may or may not know, it was founded by Kermit Eady over 25 years ago, after he won a court battle against the United Way, which did not want Blacks to have their own payroll deduction charitable organization. In fact, during that time the United Way, nationally, only gave a little under 3% to Black programs, nationally. Through BUFNY, the prime thrust of this organization was the underwriting of programs, businesses, scholarships and other establishments and institutions that were key to the progress and well being of the Black community. Their motto, THE HELPING HAND THAT IS OUR OWN, was primarily because all the funds raised through BUFNY was contributed by Black people for Black people, in amounts as little as $1.00 to $15.00, per pay check through a tax deductible payroll deduction program, they were able to raise $111 million per year, which was put back into the community.
In addition to underwriting other non-profit organizations that needed assistance, they also provided 400 units of affordable housing in Harlem and Brooklyn, incubated businesses, provided scholarships, and had done so for 25 years solely through small, ongoing contributions from the Black community. If they were still in effect, the underwriting of an “Institute of Contemporary Black History and Study” (I just made that up, but it could be a good name for Black archives), would be a shoe in. It would be a complement to the Schomberg Collection in Harlem, and perhaps a part of Medgar Evers College. The great thing about the Black United Fund of New York (BUFNY) was that its priority was focused on programs benefiting Black people. Not waiting in line for some criteria that finally came around to it being our turn.
When Elliot Spitzer decided to dismantle BUFNY over specious claims, with the view towards aggrandizing his own image he knew exactly what he was doing. He was cutting out a major financial conduit that was part and parcel of the autonomy that African Americans in New York needed. The fact that none of his claims were true, that they were later found to be erroneous, should have not only triggered an apology, but it should have prompted the immediate reinstatement of the organization, it’s holdings, as well as the return of the affordable homes that had been renovated and provided to the community. Thus far, despite letters to Governor Paterson, this has not been done. As each year passes, the Black community slips further and further to the margins of the community, while programs go begging that could easily have been underwritten through BUFNY. Even in this time of economic challenges, the contributions of $1.00 to $5.00 per week would have made a vast difference for those families facing foreclosure, unemployment, illness.
Of course, continuing to put together proposals to those entities that provide grants for educational and historical purposes is viable. However, with so many major organizations facing their own internal economic crises, the saying, “God Bless the Child whose got his own,” is as significant now, as it was when Billie Holiday sang it over 60 years ago. So the second possibility would be for members of Congress who are currently incumbent here in New York to establish a fund or a program that would provide funds for archiving their current and former members. Much like the libraries established for former Presidents. Better yet, perhaps through the auspices of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, funds for such a program could be established in each state where a Black Congress member has served for three terms or more.
Currently, though, we fact the fact that at the end of the month Congressman Owens will have liquidated and vacated his former office, and time is of the essence. What can we do now to save his considerable holdings? Perhaps Medgar Evers College could assist in helping to catalogue what he wants to retain and find a space on or near the campus to house them temporarily while a more permanent space is being identified. With the assistance of the Brooklyn Public Library, this should be quite easy to do.
Additionally, perhaps through our local churches and community based organizations, a round robin of fundraisers can be held to defray some of the costs of acquiring a permanent physical edifice for Owens and our other elected officials/activists. This would not only be utilized for memorabilia, but a place of study, research, education, and training.
When we put our minds to it, we, as a people have been known to make miracles. To make a way out of no way. This, to me, would be one of those times. Brooklyn, right now, currently has thousands of buildings standing vacant that could be transformed into such a center. Before they go under the wrecking ball, or continue to decay, we should be about the business of putting them back into useful service. This could translate into “shovel ready” projects, blight removal, community based initiatives, and other programs that President Obama has been advocating.
It’s not enough to leave the fate of what happens to us in the hands of others. It is as important that we flex our own considerable creative and innovative muscles, individually and collectively, to be the transformation we so richly deserve. Major Owens is a great part of our history. He needs our help. I, by no means, have all the answers, so I’m open to recommendations, as is Congressman Owens. Let’s talk about what we can do, and then, let’s get it done. Each victory aids us some other to win. We have but to start.
And Eclectically Black
PS: Just so you know, I am not just advocating, I'm insisting that the Black United Fund of New York be reinstated to its fullest, including the return of all buildings and funds as well as financial remuneration for their harassment.