History and happenstance

Owens said he met Hanrahan socially and got to talking about his past. Hanrahan said it would be a good idea to have him come speak to the students, and give them a first hand look at desegregation in the U.S.

"Not just read it from a book," Owens said.

Owens had a Catholic education his whole life, graduating from eighth-grade in 1948 and high school in 1953, and his story is one of political intervention and progressive policies.

"At the time schools were segregated under separate but equal," he said.

Salesianum Catholic High School for Boys was a segregated Catholic school in walking distance from Owens' house. Owens attended Catholic school up until high school and wanted to continue to do so.

The only school available for black students was Howard High School where his parents went, and although Owens had nothing against it, he wanted to continue his Catholic education.

When a local legislator Erma Watson got word Owens was still interested in attending Catholic School, she offered, and Owens accepted, to pay for travel expenses so Owens could attend a desegregated Catholic School in Pennsylvanian, where there were no segregation laws for schools.

Every morning during his freshman year Owens took the morning train into Philadelphia so he could continue his Catholic Education.

"I was happier than I ever could be, and special because I was taking the train," he said.

Soon after Watson's offer, the Catholic Interracial Council formed in his hometown and both his parents joined.

"They were working toward harmony and desegregation," Owens said.

One night, during a council meeting, Father Thomas Lawless, principal of Salesianum, was invited to attend and speak. He had learned of Owens' situation and said "that should not be," Owens recalled.

Owens' parents were approached at the meeting by Lawless, who verified there son was traveling interstate to attend high school and the next day Owens was permitted to go to Salesianum as its first black student on Monday. On Tuesday, four other students from Howard High School joined him, he said.

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