Bertie Bowman, Longest Serving Congressional Staffer, Dies At 92

In an unlikely success story, he rose from poverty in the segregated South to build relationships with powerful politicians.

Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, born into a sharecropping family in segregated South Carolina and, against the odds, became the longest-serving Black congressional aide, died Wednesday (Oct. 25) at age 92.

The Washington Post reports that he suffered complications from recent heart surgeries and passed at a rehabilitation facility in North Bethesda, Maryland.

His longtime friend, President Bill Clinton, said Bowman was “exactly the kind of person you want to take you under his wing: smart, bighearted, dedicated, and generous with his time and knowledge.”

Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James E. Clyburn, who represents South Carolina, said in a statement to that Bowman "truly lived the American dream."

"To rise from humble beginnings in Clarendon County, South Carolina, as the son of sharecroppers, to the hallowed halls of power was a tremendous feat. Becoming a friend and confidant of presidents, cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, Bertie Bowman will always be remembered as an unsung trailblazer and appreciated by the legions of young staffers who followed in his footsteps."

Bowman, a Summerton, S.C., native, grew up impoverished with 12 siblings on a farm where the kids plowed the fields barefoot, except in winters, and walked three miles to school. As a child, he dreamed of escaping that life. When the opportunity opened, he didn’t hesitate to take a chance.

“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,” Bowman wrote in his 2008 memoir, Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream.

At 13, Bowman had a chance encounter with South Carolina Sen. Burnet R. Maybank at a grocery store where the lawmaker was campaigning. Bowman took Maybank up on an invitation to visit his senate office in Washington, D.C.

Bowman packed his meager belongings in a flour sack and boarded a train for Washington in 1944.

The runaway managed to find Maybank, who kept his word. The senator paid Bowman $2 weekly to sweep the U.S. Capitol’s steps. Bowman slept on benches at night until he could afford to pay for housing. Maybank landed a job in the Capitol coffee shop for Bowman after five years of sweeping the steps.

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Over the years, Bowman steadily climbed into Senate jobs while building relationships with powerful politicians, including segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who used his influence to get Howard University to accept Bowman as a student.

In 1966, he landed a clerical position at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His job included supervising interns and messengers, mostly Southern white students who felt uncomfortable taking orders from a Black man—except for Clinton, then a 21-year-old Georgetown University junior, Bowman wrote in the Washingtonian.

“We had a little radio in our office, and we both loved Elvis. Whenever an Elvis record came on, we’d turn the radio up and sing along. His favorite was “Love Me Tender,” and mine was “Blue Suede Shoes.” We tried to dance along, but neither of us could dance,” Bowman recalled.

In 1966, Bowman also started a decades-long tenure with the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union, beginning as a volunteer on the Credit Committee and eventually serving two terms as board chairman. In 2019, the credit union named its new headquarters building after him.

"Mr. 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 CEO and President Timothy L. Anderson said.

“We mourn the loss of an exceptional individual whose absence will be deeply felt throughout our USSFCU family. It was an honor to call Mr. Bowman colleague, mentor, and friend."

Bowman’s survivors include four children: Charlene Bowman Smart, Gregory Bowman, Wilbert Bowman, and Bertie P. Bowman; stepdaughter LaUanah King-Cassell, two brothers and a sister.

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