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).
After running away from his family’s South Carolina farm as a boy and befriending archsegregationist senators in Washington, D.C., Bertie H. Bowman, an African-American who has worked in the Senate for more than 60 years, began keeping a diary of his adventures.
“Back in the late ’40s, that’s when I really started writing; I don’t know the exact date it was,” said Bowman, 82, who works for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“To sit down and think about ‘what you went through when you got to D.C.’ was the thing that got me to put it on paper,” he said.
His diary became the fodder for his autobiography, “Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream,” which was released in 2008 and has been optioned to be turned into a documentary by director Cayman Grant.
It traces Bowman’s humble beginnings, his close relationships with lawmakers and his deep understanding of how the Capitol works, ranging from the janitorial staff’s sometimes stomach-churning duties to coordinating with powerful committee chairmen.
It was in St. Paul, S.C., that a 12-year-old Bowman met Democratic Sen. Burnet R. Maybank, who was campaigning for re-election outside a local store.
“Maybank said if you’re ever in Washington to come by and see him,” Bowman said. “So I ran up to him before he could get in his car and get away and I said, ‘If I come to Washington, D.C., can I come by and see you?’ and he said ‘Yes.’”
That exchange changed Bowman’s life; a year later he ran away from home and went to Washington.
“The main thing on my agenda was I didn’t like the farm,” Bowman said, adding that it was backbreaking work with few other prospects in the Jim Crow South.
“When I was in the cotton fields, I used to hear airplanes and when buses went by I used to wonder where they were going,” Bowman said. “I used to say, ‘One of these days I am going to find out.’
“Maybank was just the instigator in getting me to really do that,” Bowman said. “When he said that, it was an open door for me.”
He had a cousin whom he was planning on staying with, but he had lost his address. Upon leaving Union Station, he saw the Capitol and remembered Maybank’s words.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.