Hundreds of members of the community, including a number of local leaders, made their way to UMass Boston Tuesday for a memorial commemorating the life of Bill Owens, Massachusetts’ first Black state senator.
Owens, who was elected to the state House in 1972 and first elected to the Senate in 1974, died earlier this year at the age of 84.
Owens’ work spanned from fighting for racial equality in Boston to looking to derail apartheid in South Africa to becoming one of the earliest voices to call for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans. His legacy was felt in the packed UMass Boston ballroom where the work of “The Senator,” as he was known, was on full display.
J. Keith Motley, chancellor emeritus of UMass Boston, said Owens used to give an eight-word lesson: Lead, follow or get out of the way.
“And what he was trying to tell us was, ‘Do something,’" he said. “He kept us in check. … All the way back there in the ‘70s, he was talking to us about reparations. And it wasn’t about no 20 acres and a mule, it was about preparing us to be chancellor of an institution and understanding it didn’t matter what they called you, it mattered what you did. Your work will speak for you.”
Among Owens' many accomplishments was his pivotal work in the development of Roxbury Community College and his creation of the State Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance. In 1989, he filed legislation seeking reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans.
Speaking remotely, Sen. Ed Markey, who was a state representative alongside Owens, said the path Owens paved will act as a shining beacon for years to come.
“Bill’s presence grounded me in the realities of today’s struggles,” Markey said. “And his spirit lifted my gaze and countless others to the opportunities and the justice that we must continue to pursue for all future generations.”
Among those who Owens inspired was Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who also spoke remotely at the memorial.
“I don’t think that it is an overstatement to say that I would not have been a city councilor, I would not be a member of Congress and the many other historic firsts that we have seen in recent years as the political landscape of the city of Boston and indeed our commonwealth has shifted to become more representative. That has everything to do with the enduring legacy of Sen. Owens,” she said. “We thank him for blazing that trail and for making the road just a little bit easier.”
Owens’ work also had an impact on Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
She recalled how even though he supported Kim Janey during Boston’s recent mayoral race, Owens took time to ask Wu how she and her family were doing.
“He has fought fiercely for our community because he fights for each and every one of us as human beings and people first and foremost,” she said.
Wu said that she is grateful to be a part of a modern generation of local progressive leaders that she said knows are only here because of Owens.
“Sen. Owens trained us to cast our eyes to the horizon and fight for every step of the way to get there,” she said. “We continue that fight today and we continue to lift up his legacy. Rise in power, Sen. Bill Owens.”