A Capitol Hill Icon: Remembering the longest serving Black staff member in the history of the U.S. Congress
Story by Dawn Klavon | Photography Courtesy of United States Senate Federal Credit Union
Bertie Herbert Bowman’s life reads like a blockbuster Hollywood movie.
He grew up poor, one of 13 children, on his sharecropper parents’ South Carolina farm. Bowman and his siblings walked three miles to school daily, didn’t bathe in the winter and were up before dawn daily doing chores.
In 1944, at age 13, he heard a speech by S.C. Sen. Burnet Maybank, who told the audience to look him up if they were ever in Washington D.C. So, Bowman ran away and hopped a train with his sights set on the nation’s capital. After arriving at Union Station, he looked up Maybank and asked him for work. Maybank hired him, paying him $2 a week out of his own pocket to sweep the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
From those humble beginnings, Bowman epitomized the American dream, working his way up the ladder and eventually serving in a senior role with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He retired at age 90 after more than six decades as a Congressional staffer—the longest serving Black staff member in the history of the U.S. Congress. Bowman died October 25, 2023 in North Bethesda at the age of 92.
“To remember the life of Bertie Bowman is to remember his integrity and his steadfast dedication to public service,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a statement issued the day after Bowman’s passing. “Throughout his life, Bertie overcame adversity, broke down barriers, and forged an inspiring future that led him from sweeping the halls of the U.S. Congress to working under 16 Chairs of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. 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.”
From Humble Beginnings
Bowman’s story is fascinating and inspirational, since he worked at the epicenter of American power for over 60 years. Back in his teens, after working for five years sweeping steps, Maybank helped Bowman get a job at a Capitol Hill coffee shop. From there, he held positions shining shoes, and befriending powerful government officials.
In 1965, when he was 34, Bowman was hired by Arkansas Sen. William Fullbright as a clerk, and then coordinator, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among his duties with the committee were greeting witnesses for testimony, overseeing and training committee interns and making sure microphones worked.
In 1967 he connected with a young intern from Hope, AK, in what would become a lifelong friendship. Bill Clinton, then a Georgetown undergrad, who worked as a messenger for the Committee.
“He was a little fella that I guess he needed a little nourishment for someone maybe a little older than he was, but we got along real fine,” Bowman said about former President Clinton in an interview aired on NBC news.
Clinton developed a decades-long relationship with Bowman and even wrote the foreword for Bowman’s autobiography, Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream, in 2008
“Bertie is living proof of why it is both morally right and in our country’s best interest to embrace the talents and gifts of all our people, regardless of race, educational background, or station in life." -President Bill Clinton
Surprisingly, Bowman also befriended Senator Strom Thurmond and Senator Jesse Helms, both from South Carolina and both segregationists, according to the Washington Post.
“Strom Thurmond and I, we had a good relationship,” Bowman told reporter Tom Temin in an interview. “He was of South Carolina. And a lot of people did not want him at the time when he became the Senator from South Carolina, but he ran and won. And we became good friends.”
In the mid-1960s, Bowman had applied to Howard University, but was having trouble getting accepted. Thurmond made a personal phone call to the university. Bowman was in. He attended business classes for several years at Howard, but never graduated, according to the Washington Post.
Working with the Influential
As part of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, Bowman rubbed elbows with the likes of Senators like then-Sen. Barack Obama. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry also worked closely with Bowman as did Vice President Joe Biden—and many other notable leaders on Capitol Hill, according to the United States Senate Federal Credit Union’s (USSFCU) website.
Bowman’s work included a role on the Architect Committee, with the Secretary of the Senate, as well as with the Foreign Relations Committee.
He retired in 1990, but was convinced to come back to work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2000 by Sen. Helms. He also owned a limousine service and was an elected member of the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union and member of the District of Columbia Board of Funeral Directors. So vital was Bowman’s role to the USSFCU, that in 2020, the organization named a branch of their business after him. The Bowman Branch of the USSFCU is located at 1310 Braddock Place in Old Town Alexandria.
“He has always been a fighter and an advocate. Bowman stands up for what’s right and always advocates for the ones tasked with getting the job done.” -Christopher Shrunk, USSFCU Board (2019)
Bowman’s service to the USSFCU began in 1966 as a member of the Credit Committee, according to the USSFCU, and continued for nearly 53 years. He joined the Board of Directors in 1975, totaling 44 consecutive years on the Board including two terms as the Board’s Chairman.
For his part, Bowman displayed humility and public service throughout is term with the board.
“You’ve gotta help somebody,” he said at the ceremony to dedicate the USSFCU building named in his honor in September of 2021. “Let ‘em know that you’re here to help them like someone helped you.”
That same year, Bowman was honored with the title of Emeritus Board Member for the USSFCU, due to his esteem within the organization. This was the first time in the 85-year history of the Credit Union that they had awarded a board member with the status of Emeritus, according to the USSFCU.
An Acclaimed Author
In 2008, Bowman’s memoirs were published, with much acclaim.
“This is a marvelous and inspiring story about a man who, despite a difficult early life, did not lose faith in himself or other people,” wrote Barbara F. Allem, former chief clerk, Committee on Foreign Relations. “He is a person many of us aspire to be like–but often fall short of.”
In the book, Bowman wrote about his ascent from poor farm boy to esteemed Congressional staff member. With his passing in late October, the Senate community reflected on the legacy he left behind.
“Bertie was the very embodiment of the American Dream and will continue to inspire new generations of public servants to pick up where he left off,” said Cardin.