Congress’ longest-serving Black staffer, Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, who worked his way up from sweeping the steps of the Capitol as a teenager to coordinating one of the Senate’s most important committees, died this week. He was 92.
Bowman died on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at a rehabilitation facility in North Bethesda, Maryland, of complications related to recent heart surgeries, Bowman’s stepdaughter LaUanah King-Cassell told The Washington Post.
Born the fifth of 14 children to sharecroppers in South Carolina, Bowman wrote in his 2008 autobiography “Step by Step” that his life changed in 1944 when, during a visit to his hometown, South Carolina Sen. Burnet Maybank told residents: “If you all ever get up to Washington, D.C., drop by and see me!”
Bowman, 13 at the time, took the senator’s word for it and ran away from home. He paid a visit to Maybank, who helped him secure a job sweeping the Capitol steps for $2 a week, according to his autobiography.
During more than 60 years in D.C., Bowman garnered a reputation for doing it all — he worked as a janitor, a cook and a shoe-shiner. He also bore witness to some of the most consequential periods in U.S. history, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision ending legal segregation in schools, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, among others.
In the 1960s, Bowman became a clerk for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later a hearing coordinator, according to CBS News. In 1966, he joined the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union as a volunteer on the credit committee and would go on to become a board member and chair.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., now the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, paid tribute to Bowman on Oct. 25.
“To remember the life of Bertie Bowman is to remember his integrity and his steadfast dedication to public service,” Cardin said in a statement. “He imprinted himself on the work and lives of every member that had the privilege to serve on our Committee across both sides of the aisle, and did so with honor, decency, and kindness.”
On the Foreign Relations Committee, Bowman had the chance to work with President Barack Obama and befriend Bill Clinton, who was a clerk for the committee years before his presidential election in 1992.
Bowman became a mentor to the young Clinton, who later would write the foreword to Bowman’s autobiography.
“Folks like Bertie don’t make the newspapers, and the American people usually will never know their names, but they work hard every day to get done all the things the people in the papers get credit for,” Clinton wrote.
Bowman was also a board member of the federal credit union for over 46 years, including two years as chair, making him its longest-serving board member. In 2019, the credit union named its new headquarters after him, and in 2021, it designated Bowman as an emeritus board member.
“Bowman was not simply a giant among men; he was a revered icon on Capitol Hill, the very conscience of the Credit Union, and, above all, an unwavering servant to his community,” the credit union’s president and CEO, Timothy L. Anderson, said in a statement.
On Wednesday, those who knew Bowman posted tributes on social media to his memory, including John Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator who is now the special presidential envoy for climate.
“[I]f you served on or appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you knew the big smile, the booming laugh, and the bear hug of Bertie Bowman,” Kerry wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “His title may have been ‘hearing coordinator’ but it could’ve just as easily been ‘heart and soul.’”
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