Early Life and Political Career
Owens was born free in Princess Anne County (after 1963 the city of Virginia Beach) and was the son of John (or Jack) Owens and Mehitable (or Hattie) Cuffee Owens. Members of his immediate family had lived in the county as free people at least since the first decade of the nineteenth century and possibly since the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Owens’s early life is not chronicled, but like some other free people in Princess Anne County, he learned to read and write. According to contemporary accounts, life for free African Americans there was not without threat, violence, and even murder at the hands of local white people.
On January 1, 1864, at Fort Monroe, Owens enlisted as a private in Company C of the 2d Regiment, U.S. Colored Cavalry. Quickly promoted to corporal a month later, he was promoted to sergeant on November 1, 1864, and by the summer of 1865 was serving as commissary sergeant. The regiment engaged in reconnaissance and participated in numerous battles and skirmishes, primarily around Petersburg and Richmond, including at Chaffin’s Farm. The regiment lost fewer than twenty officers and men in battle. At the end of the war, the regiment was posted to the Rio Grande River on the border with Mexico, where Owens mustered out on February 12, 1866.
Owens farmed in Princess Anne County after the war and on February 20, 1868, married twenty-one-year-old Sarah Cuffee, who may have been related to his mother and had been free before the war. Before her death in October 1879 they had two sons and one daughter. Of modest means, Owens owned about $25 worth of property in 1870. He engaged in local politics and served at least one year as a justice of the peace. It is also possible that in the mid-1870s Owens was elected a commissioner of roads for the county. He was a delegate to a convention of African American men who met in Richmond in August 1875 to address the political and economic inequalities that they faced in Virginia. His participation inpolitics accounted for his appointment about 1880 as an assistant keeper of the nearby Cape Henry Lighthouse. Owens’s annual salary of $500 helped him increase his personal worth to $175 in 1883.
After being nominated for the Princess Anne County seat in the House of Delegates by local Republicans in October 1879, Owens defeated incumbent Delegate Joseph J. Hall and another candidate in November to win election to a two-year term. Owens received 409 votes, the man who came in second received 385, and Hall 167. Owens was then a follower of William Mahone, the leader of the new biracial Readjuster Party that proposed to refinance the antebellum to reduce the amount of principal and interest to be paid in order to free up money for the public schools. Republicans and Readjusters held majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and the Speaker appointed Owens to the Committees on Propositions and Grievances and on Retrenchment and Economy. Early in the session, Owens voted to elect Mahone to the United States Senate and joined several other Virginia Republicans to endorse former U. S. senator from Ohio and then treasury secretary John Sherman for president. Owens introduced two bills that passed, one to punish people who pulled down fences in the county and the other to incorporate Lodge Number One, Love and Charity, in Princess Anne County.
Owens defeated two opponents and won reelection in 1881, when a coalition of Readjusters and Republicans retained their majorities in the General Assembly and also elected the governor. He received 682 votes, his opponents together 751. In his second term, Owens served on the Committees on Militia and Police, on Public Property, and on Enrolled Bills. He unsuccessfully introduced a resolution to require the state superintendent of public instruction to report on the numbers of “white and colored” students in the public schools of Princess Anne County, the salaries of the teachers in those schools, and “whether there is any discrimination in the pay of such teacher.” He also introduced bills that did not pass to create an asylum for “the colored blind, deaf and dumb of the state of Virginia” and to provide protection for African American women by instituting long prison sentences for white men convicted of engaging in sexual relations with African American women. In November 1883, he narrowly lost (988 to 962, with 39 votes for a third candidate) his race for a third term, although he continued to participate in local Republican politics during the decade.
Meantime, on December 24, 1882, Owens married Mary Jarvis, fifteen years his junior. They had at least one daughter. He worked for about $3 a day as a laborer at the Navy Yard in Gosport, at Portsmouth, and in February 1883 he purchased sixty acres of land, known as Gum Swamp, in Kempsville, Princess Anne County. It was sold at public auction in 1888 after he was unable to repay a loan he secured with his property, and he later moved to Norfolk.
During the day on August 13, 1889, in Norfolk and with little apparent attempt to conceal his intentions, Owens, who believed that his wife was having an affair, shot to death twenty-eight-year-old Robert Gornte (or Gornto). Owens was immediately arrested and in November convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to eighteen years in the state penitentiary. On July 11, 1893, the governor pardoned him because of his deteriorating health, and he was released from prison the next day.
Owens died of pneumonia in Norfolk on March 11, 1894. He was buried in the Sergeant March Corprew Family Cemetery in Norfolk County (later the city of Chesapeake), where his name with life dates 1842–1894 is on a plaque that honors Civil War veterans of the United States Army. His widow petitioned for his military pension a month after his death.