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Longtime advocate, historian, receives honorary street sign and key to City of Kansas City, Kansas

Chester Owens
Posted at 9:46 PM, Jun 07, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Mayor/CEO Tyrone Garner presented a key to the city Thursday night to longtime resident and activist Chester Owens at a Board of County Commissioner's meeting.

After decades of serving Wyandotte County, Owens is leaving the city to be closer to his family.

A veteran of the United States Air Force, Owens is a respected historian, civil rights advocate and community member in Kansas City, Kansas.

The Unified Government's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to put up an honorary street sign to recognize Owens and his late wife, Lillie Anne.

A line of people at Thursday's meeting waited to share their stories about Owens and celebrate him before he leaves.

"I was assigned to be the principal of Hawthorne Elementary School," James White, a KCK resident, said. "Mr. Owens was one of the first community people to show up at my door. He said, 'Mr. White, I’m gonna show you how to run the school and he did.'"

Owens' sister-in-law, Alice Yates Banks, came to share platitudes about Owens.

"He’s a public figure, but he’s just a good man. A good family man," she said.

At 91 years old, Owens says he's received a lot of honors. He was KCK's first Black councilman elected in the 20th century and helped bring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the city.

Chester Owens

Owens will be the first to tell anyone listing his accomplishments that his late wife, Lillie Anne Owens, did even more.

"My wife needs to be honored," Owens said. "People give me honors, but my wife was smarter than I was and she needs to be honored."

It's fitting North 12th Street and Washington Boulevard will be named Chester and Lillie Owens Lane.

Owens wouldn't have it any other way.

"Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: 'We can live successfully as brothers and sisters or we can die together as fools,'" Owens said. "Me and my wife tried to do that all of our life, all of our life."

If you sit with Owens, he will tell you plenty about himself and how far his city has come.

"They would have Help Wanted Colored and Help Wanted White and that’s the way that it was and I challenged that."

Chester Owens
Chester Owens pictured with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He also will praise the life and accomplishments of his wife of 62 years.

"She was the brain," Owens said. "We did everything together. She broke glass ceilings."

Leaving Kansas City, Kansas is leaving the longest chapter of his life behind.

"It hurts," Owens said. "I hate to leave KCK. It’s very, very hard."

Lillie Anne Owens

His one last request is that the person he shared most of his life with gets her flowers, too.

"I just hope more people ask: 'Who is Lillie Anne Owens?'"