Chandler Owen was born in Warrenton, North Carolina in 1889. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 1913. Three years later he moved to New York City and attended Columbia University, where he met Philip Randolph. Both men joined the Socialist Party and along with Claude McKay, he became a follower of radical activist Hubert Harrison.
Owen and Philip Randolph established the journal The Messenger. The first edition published in August, 1917, was a mixture of political comment, trade union news, literary criticism and biographies of leading radicals of the time.
The first edition included the following: "Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to. Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for."
During the First World War he was arrested for breaking the Espionage Act. It was claimed that Owen and his co-editor, Philip Randolph was guilty of treason after opposing African Americans joining the army.
Over the next few years the journal published the work of E. Franklin Frazier, Joel Rogers, Hubert Harrison, George Schuyler, Roy Wilkins, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Eugene O'Neill.
The journal closed in 1928. Owen now moved to Chicago, where he became managing editor of the Chicago Bee. Owen became more conservative with age but he continued to support Philip Randolph in his effortsto organizing black workers in laundries, clothes factories and cinemas and in 1929 became president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). Over the next few years he built it into the first successful black trade union.
In later life Owen suffered from a kidney complaint. In a letter that he wrote to Philip Randolph in October, 1967, "Our long friendship, never soiled, is nearing its close. I've been in pain. If you were not living. I would commit suicide today."
Chandler Owen died in November, 1967.