The longest-serving black member of Congress, Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, who rose through the ranks 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 years old.
Bowman died Wednesday, Oct. 25, at a rehabilitation center in North Bethesda, Maryland, following complications from recent heart surgeries, Bowman’s daughter-in-law, 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, the South Carolina Senator Burnet Maybank told residents, “If you all stand up in Washington, D.C., come see me!” »
Bowman, 13 at the time, took the senator’s word and ran away from home. He visited Maybank, who helped him get a job sweeping the steps of the Capitol for $2 a week, according to his autobiography.
During more than 60 years in Washington, Bowman earned a reputation as a do-it-all: he worked as a janitor, a cook and a shoe shiner. He also witnessed some of the most impactful 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 on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then hearings coordinator, according to CBS News. In 1966, he joined the Federal Credit Union of the United States Senate as a volunteer on the credit committee and later became a member and chairman of the board of directors.
Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, honored Bowman on October 25.
“To remember Bertie Bowman’s life is to remember his integrity and unwavering dedication to public service,” Cardin said in a statement. “He imprinted himself on the work and lives of every member who had the privilege of serving on our committee from both sides of the aisle, and he 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 secretary of the committee years before his 1992 presidential election.
Bowman became a mentor to the young Clinton, who would later write the foreword to Bowman’s autobiography.
“People like Bertie don’t make the headlines, and Americans usually never know their names, but they work hard every day to accomplish all the things that newspaper people are known for,” Clinton wrote.
Bowman also served on the Federal Credit Union board of directors for more than 46 years, including two years as president, making him its longest-serving board member. In 2019, the credit union named its new headquarters after him, and in 2021, it named Bowman as an emeritus member of the board of directors.
“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, a steadfast servant of his community,” said Credit Union President and CEO Timothy L. Anderson in a communicated.
On Wednesday, those who knew Bowman posted tributes on social media in his memory, including John Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator who is now the president’s special climate envoy.
“(If) you served on or appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you knew Bertie Bowman’s big smile, booming laugh, and bear hug,” Kerry wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter name. “His title could have been ‘hearings coordinator,’ but it could just as easily have been ‘heart and soul.’
To learn more about NBC BLK, Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.