Early Life and Political Career
Owen was born into slavery in Halifax County about 1830 and was the son of Patrick Owen and Lucy Hughes Owen. His enslaver William L. Owen was a prominent merchant who owned forty-five people in 1860. Usually known as Alex Owen, he was described by a Richmond newspaper as having “no trace of white blood in him” and was identified in the U.S. Census records for 1870 and 1880 as a ditcher. On December 26, 1866, he married Eliza Brooks. They had at least three sons and two daughters before she died on August 17, 1872.
On July 6, 1869, when voters elected legislators to serve in the General Assembly, Alexander Owen, Isaac Edmundson, and a white man won election as Conservatives to the county’s three seats in the House of Delegates. Owen’s first votes of consequence came on October 8, 1869, when he voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as Congress required before it seated senators and representatives from Virginia.Appointed to the standing Committee on Asylums and Prisons, he was also a member of a special committee to investigate charges against fellow delegate William H. Andrews, of Surry County, who was facing expulsion from the House for striking an officer of the General Assembly with a whip. On April 1, 1870, Owen offered one of his few proposals, this one to allow two women to continue selling apples at their stand in the Capitol’s vestibule, but it died in committee.
Described as a respectable and intelligent man, Owen was close personally and politically with his former enslaver, who had represented the county in the House of Delegates in the first sessions after the Civil War and in the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. He consulted frequently with William Owen, whom he referred to as “the Boss,” on legislative matters, reporting to a newspaper that he “didn’t give a vote on any bill without hearing first from him. I went to see him—all the way to Halifax County—thirty-six times during the session. . . . I reckon I do believe in the Boss; and I would vote for him for any office, even for Gen. Grant’s place” as president.
According to another newspaper account, while the assembly was considering what was called the consolidation bill, to combine several Virginia railroads into one company, the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad Company, with former Confederate general William Mahone as president, a white Conservative delegate threatened Owen. “Alek, if you don’t vote for this Bill, I will cut your darned ears off and send them back to H—x; you son of a gun.” To which Owen reportedly responded, “I ’spect you, Colonel, will make about $25,000 by this bill, and I like you and will go for it certain.” Owen later boasted that he helped pass the bill.
Owen made a successful motion on June 24, 1870, to table a bill that would have repealed an act incorporating an association to aid white widows and orphans in southern states. During the last weeks of June 1870, the General Assembly heatedly debated a bill to establish public schools, and Owen and most of his fellow African American delegates were unsuccessful in their efforts to strike out the section that required that the schools be racially segregated. Subsequently some of the African Americans cast a symbolic vote against passage of the school bill that they almost certainly favored, although Owen did not vote on the final bill.
In February 1871 Owen testified under oath before a special committee appointed to investigate charges of bribery and corruption revolving around construction of a railroad from Washington to Richmond, a measure favored by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad and opposed by William Mahone. Asked whether he knew of anyone who had accepted any gift, gratuity, or promise thereof in exchange for a vote on any particular issue, Owen rather smugly responded, “I know one, and that is myself, sir. Before this bill came to the test, sir, I went to my county. My constituents asked me to vote for it. . . . They told me it would be the life of the country, and I told them that I would vote for it. I have received nothing from any other party save those who elected me, and from them only their good will. I know of no other party who has received anything.” Owen’s principal constituent was William Owen.
His last important vote as a member of the assembly was on March 28, 1871, when he voted with the majority in favor of the Funding Act of 1871, to provide for the payment of Virginia’s antebellum public debt. The high interest rate and the tax-receivable character of the interest-bearing coupons on the bonds that the state issued to finance the debt led to a decade of political controversy, budget deficits, and serious reductions in appropriations for public schools. In response, Mahone helped organize the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition, to support refinancing the debt and transferring revenue from debt service to the schools. At the end of his two-year term, Owen returned to Halifax and his work as a ditcher, although he remained interested in politics. On February 15, 1879, the Halifax Readjuster Party elected him a delegate to the party’s state convention, but the only other African American member of the delegation objected to Owen, who was replaced.
In February 1871, for $1,100, Owen purchased fifty-four acres of land in Black Walnut District from William Owen’s son, Robert Owen. On July 4, 1873, the widowed Owen married twenty-two-year-old Malinda “Lindy” Wiley. They had a son who died on January 14, 1874, the day after his birth. She abandoned Owen three years later and ran off with another man to Ohio, where they had a child. In May 1884 he filed for divorce citing adultery. It was granted on November 18, 1885. In Mecklenburg County, on April 15, 1886, he married Clarissa, or Clara, Lewellen Pool, a widow, and they had one son.
By 1880 Owen was still working as a ditcher but was in debt. He and his seven-year-old daughter were then boarding with a sharecropper who may have been farming Owen’s land. In 1878, Owen had become indebted to Henry Easley for $94.00. Owen made nominal payments, but in April 1889 the Halifax Circuit Court issued a judgment against him for the sum plus interest and costs, all of which amounted to considerably more than the original debt. Stating that Owen owned no personal property, the court ordered that his land be rented out and the rents paid to Easley. On September 8, 1891, Owen sold the fifty-four acres of land to a white farmer, who paid the price directly to Easley to satisfy the debt. Although Owen was identified as literate on the 1880 census, he signed the court records and the deed with his mark.
Alexander Owen last appeared in the Halifax County personal property tax records in 1898 and probably died in that year or the next. His place of burial is not known.