Press: Coming soon: Bertie Bowman Senate Office Building
If they were honest, most political reporters would admit that the best writing doesn’t always appear on the newspaper’s political page. You’ll likely find it on the sports page, or the obituary page.
And through the obituary page of The New York Times, I learned of the inspiring story of Bertie Bowman, the longest-serving black staffer in Congress, who died on October 25 at the age of 92.
Bowman was just 13 years old, and still working the fields with his shareholder parents in South Carolina, when Senator Burnet Maybank (D.S.C.) made an unscheduled stop in his hometown. He boldly asked the senator if he could shake his hand if he arrived in Washington. Marbank agreed, and after a few weeks Bowman ran away from home and hopped a train to Washington. He slept two nights at Union Station, then walked to the Capitol. Maybank was so impressed that he got a job sweeping floors for $2 a week, which the senator paid out of his own pocket. Thus began a remarkable career.
Bowman spent the next two decades in “secret” jobs in the Capitol: working as a janitor, shining shoes, and helping out in the Senate barber shop. His big break came in 1965 when Senator William J. Fulbright (D-Arkansas) clerked, then coordinator, for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bowman’s duties included welcoming witnesses, making sure microphones worked, keeping senators on track with their questions and training, and supervising interns — including a young man from Hope, Arkansas, named Bill Clinton. As the Times reported, “The two bonded over a shared love of Elvis Presley, and could sometimes be spied singing and trying to dance to the music.” Clinton wrote the introduction to Bowman’s 2008 memoir.
Maybank, Fulbright, and Clinton were not the only fellow Southerners who helped Bowman along the way. Remarkably, so did two segregationists, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. When Bowman was denied admission to Howard University, Thurmond personally contacted the university’s president and secured a spot for Bowman. Later, when Bowman left the commission for a few years to run his father-in-law’s limousine service, Helms, then head of foreign affairs, called him and invited him back.
As he demonstrated upon his retirement in 2021, Bowman has acquired a great deal of personal and political skills during his nearly six decades on the committee. When asked which committee member was his favorite, Bowman answered sagely, “There are 27 members of the committee. They were all my favorites.”
What a great story. And what a tribute to the unsung heroes, the thousands of federal employees like Bertie Bowman, the dedicated public servants who keep our government agencies running, year after year, no matter who’s in the White House. We are all in debt.
There has to be some way to honor Bertie Bowman and his fellow federal employees, and there is. As Senator John Fetterman (D-Pa.) recently argued, it is a shame that despite the removal of many monuments to Confederate leaders in the South, here in Washington a Senate office building still bears the name of notoriously racist Senator Richard. Russell (Democrat from Georgia).
It is time for the US Senate to catch up with the rest of the country. And there is no better way to do that than to remove the name of the Russell Senate Office Building and replace it with the “Bertie Bowman Senate Office Building.” Come on, senators. Fetterman is right. Do it now!
The Bill Press Pod hosts. He is the author of From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.
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