Bertie Bowman is the longest-serving African-American staff member on Capitol Hill. After arriving in the nation's capital in 1944 as a thirteen-year-old runaway, Bowman worked his way up from a janitorial position to become hearing coordinator for the U.S. Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee. In 2008 his autobiography, Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream, was published, with a forward by former President Bill Clinton.
Herbert "Bertie" Bowman was born outside the small town of Summerton, South Carolina, in 1931. As he noted in his autobiography, his precise birth date is uncertain, as the local courthouse records, often unreliable in that era, do not agree with family tradition. On the basis of the latter, however, Bowman believes he was born April 12, 1931. He was the fifth child of tenant farmers Robert Bowman and Mary Ragin Bowman; the household eventually included fourteen children.
Like most African-American families in the rural South of the 1930s, the Bowmans were poor, at times desperately so. Bowman wrote movingly of this poverty, noting, for example, that "the wind would whistle through the wooden boards of the house" in the winter. While he found much to enjoy as a child, particularly the social gatherings held each week at the local church, the burden of farm chores and his father's strict discipline made him dream of escape. He seized an opportunity to do so in 1944, after hearing U.S. Senator Burnet Maybank speak at a local store. As Bowman recalled the incident decades later, the senator, then running for re-election, invited his listeners to visit him if they were ever in Washington, DC. The thirteen-year-old Bowman took Maybank at his word and immediately resolved to leave Summerton for the nation's capital. Several nights later, he crept out of the house, caught a bus to the nearby town of Sumter, and boarded a train to Washington. Though he was unused to trains and travel, particularly among whites, he was reassured by the presence of numerous African-American porters, several of whom gave him advice and assistance. The excitement Bowman felt upon reaching Washington's Union Station was still apparent more than sixty years later, when he exclaimed to talk-show host Tavis Smiley in a 2008 broadcast, "When I got to the Union Station, man, I thought that Union Station was Washington. All those lights. I'd never seen that many lights before."
With few resources, Bowman had to rely initially on his charm and his wits. While he knew an older cousin lived in the city, he had lost the man's address. Seeing Senator Maybank thus became an urgent necessity. Once again, he received considerable assistance from workers and passersby. After spending several nights on the benches of Union Station, Bowman succeeded in meeting the senator, who quickly arranged what became Bowman's first job in Washington: sweeping the steps of the U.S. Capitol building for two dollars a week. It was only later that Bowman learned that the job had been an unofficial one; Maybank paid the salary out of his own pocket. Recalling the senator's kindness, Bowman commented to Alison McSherry in Roll Call, "I guess we Southerners stick together."
Bowman's acquaintance with Maybank was the first instance of what would become an unusual characteristic of his career: namely, his friendship with white politicians who, at least in their public lives, opposed racial integration and other civil-rights goals. Bowman grew particularly close, for example, to fellow South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, who first came to national prominence in 1948 as the presidential candidate of the States' Rights Democratic Party, a staunchly segregationist organization. Thurmond would later serve in the U.S. Senate for decades. Bowman, for his part, has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Thurmond's personal qualities and the positions he had to take to get elected at a time when public support for civil rights was not yet widespread. Any criticism of his relationship with Thurmond, Bowman told McSherry, therefore went "in one ear and out the other."
While still a sweeper, Bowman quickly established himself as a helpful, courteous jack-of-all-trades in and around the Capitol building. The array of official and unofficial jobs he performed during this period is vast. In general terms, however, he moved from sweeping the steps to working in the building's coffee shop, and from the coffee shop to the janitorial office. He also spent a brief period in the U.S. Army after being drafted in the late 1940s. By the middle of the 1950s he was working in the Capitol's barbershop, where he met and befriended future U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. The focus of his Capitol career, however, began about 1965, when he became a clerk for the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee (FRC), arguably the most powerful committee in Congress. Bowman was thus at the center of the nation's foreign-policy debate during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, as controversy grew over the war in Vietnam. He also worked throughout the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, when the nation's attention was riveted on the Capitol for months. By 1990, when Bowman announced his retirement, he had risen to become assistant hearing coordinator for the FRC, with significant responsibility for handling the logistical arrangements for all of the dozens of meetings the committee holds each year.
Bowman's work in the Capitol did not end in 1990, however, for he continued to work as a consultant to the FRC for the rest of the decade. It was also in 1990 that he took over his recently deceased father-in-law's limousine business. These activities kept him occupied until 1999, when another southern senator, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, altered the course of Bowman's life once more. Helms, who had just become chair of the FRC, remembered Bowman and thought highly of his abilities. In the course of his preparations to take over the committee, therefore, Helms asked Bowman to come out of retirement and serve as his hearing coordinator. Bowman agreed and began work the following year. As of 2008 he was still working in the Capitol he had first entered as a teenage runaway some sixty-four years earlier.
At a Glance …
Born Herbert Bowman on April 12, 1931, in Summerton, SC; son of Robert Bowman (a farmer) and Mary Ragin Bowman; married. Military service: U.S. Army, late 1940s.
Career: Performed a wide variety of janitorial and other tasks in the U.S. Capitol, 1944-65; U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, clerk and assistant hearing coordinator, 1965-90, hearing coordinator, 2000—; president, Bertie's Limousine Service, 1990—.
Memberships: Board member, U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union.
Addresses: Office—c/o Foreign Relations, 6225 U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510-6225.
Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream, Ballantine Books, 2008.
Roll Call, May 20, 2008.
"Bertie Bowman," Tavis Smiley, June 3, 2008, http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200806/20080603_bowman.html (accessed October 29, 2008).
Inskeep, Steve, "From Sweeper to Capitol Hill Staffer, ‘Step by Step,’" NPR (National Public Radio), May 13, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90394739&ft=1&f=1012 (accessed October 29, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler