Bowman ran away from his family’s farm as a boy and has spent the decades since rubbing elbows with presidents and senators. He started working in the Capitol as a janitor and is now a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer (who drives a cab in his downtime).
He eventually found the senator, who got him a job with the janitorial staff. Maybank initially paid him out of his own pocket and even helped him find his cousin.
“I don’t know if he really remembered me,” Bowman said, adding that he lived in the Capitol for a while before he found a place to live.
Asked why he thinks Maybank helped him, Bowman said, “We Southerners are a little different than most any people in the world.
“At that time, if you become a friend of a white man, or you work on his farm or whatever, they treat you like gold because you do so many things for them,” Bowman said.
But Bowman stressed that the relationship was sincere. “He kind of took me under his wing, like a son,” he said.
He stressed that times are different now, and no one should try to “do what Bertie Bowman did in the ’40s.”
Bowman was also very close to Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who won Maybank’s seat after his death in 1954. He was also close friends with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark. All were opposed to federal action on racial issues, a topic Bowman said he never discussed with them before their deaths.
“We never did discuss things like that,” Bowman said. “They were my friends.”
Bowman was also friendly with President Lyndon Johnson, who as Senate majority leader helped pushed through the 1957 civil rights bill and as president signed the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Bowman does recall Thurmond’s infamous filibuster against civil right legislation in 1957. He tells the story of how Thurmond was catheterized so he could relieve himself without leaving the floor. A bag was secured around his lower leg that was emptied into a container by the Thurmond staff hidden by Senate desks.
Bowman said that janitorial staff would get a call from Senate floor staff that the container was being filled and the janitorial staff would make themselves scarce out of concern they’d be asked to help clean the container.
Supervising a Future President
Bowman, who sometimes drives his own cab during his downtime, held several jobs in the Senate. He ultimately came to the Foreign Relations Committee under Fulbright’s chairmanship, where he oversaw a young Bill Clinton. The future president, an Arkansan like Fulbright, worked for Bowman as a messenger for the committee when he was a junior at Georgetown University.
“We never did discuss him becoming president of the United States, but we did discuss him becoming a congressman, or a senator maybe,” Bowman said. “And at that time, this committee had produced a few presidents.”
Bowman’s friendship with both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of State, goes back over 40 years. Bill Clinton wrote the foreword to Bowman’s autobiography.
Bowman and his wife supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008, but he is also friends with and ultimately backed President Barack Obama, with whom he worked on the Foreign Relations Committee for three years.
“I didn’t think I ever would see a black president, at that time,” Bowman said.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.