In 1944, at age 13, Bertie Bowman heard his senator say: “If you ever get up to Washington, D.C., come by and see me.” Even though Burnet Maybank (D-S.C.) was addressing a crowd of mostly white constituents, Bowman, the fifth of 14 siblings, took his words to heart.
He arrived in Washington with his belongings in a flour sack. And Maybank got him a job — two dollars a week to sweep the steps of the Capitol. In his memoir Step by Step, Bowman traces his journey from janitor to hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is the longest-serving African-American staffer on Capitol Hill.
The following are excerpts from his book.
Bowman writes of his childhood: “I dreamed of leaving the farm someday. For as long as I can remember, the escape plan was there, big as life, in the back of my mind. I always kept it closely guarded. I wanted to seize control of my life before anything other than me shaped it. I even took precautions about my departure, being very careful that I not dream about it so my brothers, who slept in the same bed with me, would not hear me talk about my plan in my sleep.”
Maybank not only schooled Bowman on the inner workings of the Capitol but, as chairman of the Banking Committee, advised him to save his money. Maybank died in 1954. Eventually, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) would fill his seat.
Writes Bowman, “Everyone from the basement was volunteering to help get Senator Thurmond’s room together just so they could get a look. No one cared much that he was a segregationist. We were used to them. There were a lot of those in the Senate back then. It was a while before we knew how much of a segregationist Strom Thurmond was, but in the early 1950s, people, especially senators, were saying all kinds of hateful things back home in order to stay in office. They knew what their people wanted to hear and they gave it to them.
“And, truth be told, we black Senate employees did the same thing. We knew what our senators wanted to hear from us and, to get a raise or a better job, we gave it to them. It wasn’t Uncle Tomming but survival. We knew the game. …
“ ‘Hello, Mr. Senator,” I said to Strom Thurmond, the first time I saw him in the hall. ‘I’m Bertie Bowman. Senator Maybank was a good friend of mine.’
“Thurmond smiled warmly. ‘He was, was he?’
“ ‘Yes. I’m from Summerton, South Carolina.’
“ ‘You still got people down there?’ he asked.
“ ‘Yes, I do, sir.’
“He tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Well, then, Bertie Bowman, you let me know if they need anything,’ he said, ‘I’ll take care of them.’
“ … From that day until he died, Strom Thurmond and I were friends. He invited me to office social events and always respected me as a person. There was never a time when we passed each other in the halls that he did not stop talking to the person he was with to say hello to me. He also kept his word. Whenever anyone in my family needed something where a politician could assist, all I had to do was tell Senator Thurmond and he would get a staff member in his home office to see to it.
“The word got around Summerton that Negroes were listened to when they went to Thurmond’s storefront office in Manning, South Carolina, and many families went there to get the personal things they needed. He was a typical Southern senator back then. Politically, he fought against civil rights and gave his segregationist voters what they wanted to hear. Personally, however, he was someone Negroes could turn to for help. At that point in time that was all Negroes could expect from a senator.
“ … When the Senate was out of session, I often earned some extra money working for Strom Thurmond at his house out in Bethesda. I always thought of those as two-part exercise days. First, I did the heavy work he needed done while he relaxed, and then he invited me to talk with him on his back porch, where he would do his bodybuilding exercises as I relaxed. The man was a physical fitness nut way ahead of the craze. He was a good thirty years older than I was, but just as thin and infinitely more agile.
“ ‘This exercise is for Myrtle Beach next week,’ he told me one afternoon as he did his sit-ups. ‘For a ladies’ man like me, there’s nothing better than lookin’ at all those beauties go by in their swimming suits on Myrtle Beach.’
“ ‘You don’t have to be in shape to look at girls,’ I pointed out, laughing.
“ ‘Well, there’s always the hope they’ll look back! Girls like a man who’s physically fit.’ ”
Thurmond also helped Bowman get into college: “ ‘And what’s happening with your college plans?’ Senator Thurmond asked me one day when we were talking in his office.
“That was a question that I wanted to avoid. ‘I applied to Howard, but they said my high school grades weren’t high enough.’ I shrugged.
“His eyes narrowed. ‘What do you mean?’
“I explained the rejection of my application in greater detail.
“The next thing I knew he was on the phone. ‘This is Senator Strom Thurmond, calling for Bill Roberts.’
Thurmond leaned back in his office chair and waited with a serious look on his face. ‘Bill? Senator Thurmond here. Now, I have this fine young man from my home state, who just told me that you won’t let him in that school up there. I can’t imagine what is going on. I mean, as we both know, most of the money you get to run that school comes from the federal government …’ And so it went on in this manner for several minutes. …
“ ‘Thank you very much,’ the senator said before hanging up.
“After a few minutes, he looked at me with that withering stare that made his fellow lawmakers tremble. ‘Bertie, now you go right back up to Howard and ask to see William Roberts in the Office of Administration,’ he instructed. ‘He should have some good news for you.’ ”
When he was 18, Bowman received his draft notice and served in the Korean War. In 1961, he was called back to active duty in the Air National Guard during the Berlin Crisis and in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
He remained in the Reserves but returned to Capitol Hill, where he joined the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966. Here he recounts some advice he received from panel Chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.):
“ ‘Bertie,’ Senator Fulbright said one day as we were driving to a meeting, ‘Do you still enjoy being in the Air National Guard?’
“I cringed, thinking of all the times Guard duty had interrupted my life. ‘Not anymore, to tell the truth. They are always calling me up at times when I’m really busy with something else. It can be a nuisance.’
“ ‘Well, then, maybe you should consider retiring.’
“That got my interest. ‘How do I do that?’
“He wrote a name down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. ‘Go see him and fill out the form.’
“The next day, I followed the senator’s orders and was released from the Air National Guard. Shortly after that, my outfit got called up again for active duty. I always wondered whether Senator Fulbright had known something I hadn’t known, but the matter never came up again.”
In 1972, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was elected to the Senate. “I could tell Jesse Helms, the senator newly elected from North Carolina in 1972, really wanted to be on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, because he hung around the area almost all day long, first meeting with one member, then another. He’d even done his homework about me. ‘Bertie, I understand we’re both Carolina boys,’ he said, shaking my hand and giving me a hearty pat on the back. ‘I’ve heard a lot of good things about you from Strom.’
“ ‘And he’s told me good things about you, too,” I replied, because, in fact, Strom Thurmond told me how much he liked Jesse Helms.
“With that introduction, another man with a reputation as an ‘archsegregationist’ started becoming a personal friend of mine. ‘We Carolina boys have to stick together,’ Helms told me. ‘We Carolina boys have to help each other out!’ And, irrational as that may seem, we did. I really liked this man.
“ … The real bond Helms and I shared, however, was an aversion to exercise. Every lunch hour Strom Thurmond would run through the tunnel from the Capitol to his office. He consistently tried to get me or Senator Helms to run with him. Ducking his invitations for exercising became a standard joke between the two of us.
“ … I never discussed with Senator Helms the terrible things he said about blacks over the years on the campaign trail or how he had managed his narrow defeat of Harvey Gantt, a black political opponent trying to take his seat. … I dealt with him on a very personal, one-on-one level, and on that level he was a good friend who treated me with respect, attentively noticing the work I did and praising me for it.”
Step by Step is in bookstores now.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream
By Bertie Bowman
One World/Ballantine, 2008
224 pages, $25