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.
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.
Bowman is working on a letter he plans to send to Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., with whom he is also close from when he was chairman of the committee, inviting them to lunch in the committee’s hearing room or anteroom.
Bowman said he last saw Obama at the unveiling of the Rosa Parks statue at the Capitol in February, when he poked him about forgetting the little people. He also mentioned lunch.
In his book, Bowman talks about the “downstairs staff” where he started in his career. He wants them to get recognition they are due for all the hard work they have done over the years.
He intends to try to get some of the photographs of staff he has hung up in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center. But he needs a senator to sponsor a resolution to do so, something he hopes to bring up with Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
“If I get the time, I’m going to try to talk to the chairman. I’ll start there,” Bowman said.