Bill Owens, Massachusetts’ First Black Senator, Passes Away at 84

Massachusetts State Senator William Owens (center) addresses a press conference in City Hall Plaza in Boston on April 6, 1976, the day after the assault on Ted Landsmark. Image:Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Bill Owens, who became the first Black state senator in the history of Massachusetts and was an ardent supporter of reparations for the descendants of Black slaves, passed away last Saturday, the Associated Press reported. He was 84.

Confirming his passing in a statement, his family said that Owens was surrounded by loved ones at the time of his transition. Recently, he struggled with numerous ailments and tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks ago, the family said.

“We are fortunate to have had him for 84 years and to call him family,” the statement said. “His legacy will continue in those he has touched, laws he has changed, and the children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews he has loved and influenced.”

Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts paid tribute to Owens and lauded his legislative achievements in a statement.

“History may have called on Bill Owens, but he wasn’t going to wait for it,” Markey said. “From the beginning of his career, he fought to ensure that Black families and workers got the rights and representation denied to them. He fought to become the first Black State Senator just like he fought for housing justice, for reparations, for Roxbury Community College, and for equal opportunity for all people of color. He learned the lessons of our nation’s history, rewrote them, and then taught the powers-that-be from his own textbook on building political and economic power. The first Black State Senator needed to have a loud voice, and Bill Owens’s was as resonant and powerful and lasting as history required.”

Born in Demopolis, Alabama, Owens relocated to Boston with his family when he was 15.

In Boston, he attended The English High School and graduated from Boston University, Harvard University, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

He was first elected to the state House in 1972 and elected to the Senate in 1974. He served a second term as a state senator from 1988-1992.

A fierce advocate for racial justice and economic equality, Owens helped secure funds to build Roxbury Community College, established the State Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance, launched a youth summer jobs program, and was instrumental in passing an assault weapons ban.

“Until the end of his life, Bill continued to fight for inequities that exist in every corner of our society, and he pushed for reparations for descendants of slaves in the United States,” the family’s statement continued. “He used his platform to change laws and advocate for equity in housing, healthcare, education, and economic opportunities for everyone.”

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family of the Honorable Bill Owens.

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