Step by Step : A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream
A great American story of an ordinary man who is living an extraordinary life, Step by Step is the inspiring personal account of Bertie Bowman's remarkable rise from farmer's son in the Jim Crow South to hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Capitol.
In 1944, Bertie Bowman-a poor, impressionable thirteen-year-old kid, the fifth of fourteen siblings-heard South Carolina senator Burnet Maybank declare: "If you all ever get up to Washington, D.C., drop by and see me!" Though Maybank was addressing a crowd of white constituents, Bertie took those words to heart-for they offered him an invitation to a new life, a chance to escape the drudgery of the family farm and his well-meaning yet stern father. Carrying only a flour sack and his meager savings pinned inside his shirt, Bertie set out for the city "up the road" to make his mark. Surprisingly true to his word, Senator Maybank saw to it that the young runaway had a place to stay and a steady income-earned by sweeping the Capitol steps for two dollars a week. Yet what started as a janitorial position, step by step, became so much more.
For sixty years, Bertie Bowman stood at the epicenter of change and witnessed history in the making: the death of FDR, World War II, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate. The perpetual recipient of unconditional kindness, he formed many enduring friendships with the unlikeliest of people. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton, Senator J. William Fulbright, and even segregationist senator Strom Thurmond have been among his greatest allies.
But Bowman also, in his day, encountered prejudice and the "separate but equal" doctrine, and he observed firsthand the clandestine backroom deals made in the name of democracy. However, in the embrace of the large enclave of Southern blacks who populated Washington, D.C., Bowman maintained a spirit of hopefulness. With each step, his can-do attitude made him a star, mentor, and community leader, and a strong advocate for the unsung staffers who took great pride in doing their part to keep the Capitol's wheels turning.
Work hard. Be true to yourself. Take responsibility. Have a positive outlook. Expect the best from people. These are the beliefs that Bertie Bowman lives by-and as he shares his story, he also shares the lessons and values that have served him well throughout his life and career.
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May 12, 2008
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Excerpt from Step by Step by Bertie Bowman
Summerton, South Carolina
As a result of haphazard record keeping, i started out life with two "official" birthdays, but not much else. Legend has it that in the early 1930s down in Summerton, South Carolina, a midwife named "Mrs. Jessie" rode around Clarendon County in an old buggy pulled by a white horse. The horse was reliable, knew the roads by heart, and took her to the farms of the colored families. Mrs. Jessie delivered all of the colored babies, and I was no exception. I was born in 1931.
Local people still share tales today about the lady with the white horse. The elders say Mrs. Jessie would hitch her horse outside the courthouse door, strut past the onlookers, and enter, waving a long list of kids' names for all to see.
"Here they is!" Mrs. Jessie would proudly proclaim. "Here's all the babies I brung into the world since I seen you last!"
The clerks permitted Mrs. Jessie to put the names into the record book herself, using her jagged scrawl on the pages to list the health, weight, and other physical descriptions of the baby. That was a big honor for a colored person. Nobody was allowed to touch the record book unless they were white. When Mrs. Jessie came to my entry, the comment listed beside my name, Bertie Herbert Bowman, was in big letters: "wate--much as 10 bag flower--long like daddy arm."
The courthouse ledger showed my birthday on May 5, 1931. In her usual state of frenzy and haste, Mrs. Jessie recorded thirty-two other births, but obviously she did not midwife all those babies in one day. She might have been a legend with a constitution of iron, but she wasn't superhuman.
In Summerton, a hamlet of nearly 2,000 people at the time, important events were always noted in the family Bible. Since Mrs. Jessie often possessed the sole responsibility for making the critical notations in the Bibles, many families still have her printed comments in their Holy books. Sadly, our family Bible burned, so I have no way of knowing what was written inside, but I do recall that Mrs. Jessie's penmanship in it was a direct match to that in the county record book.
I would later learn from my father's cousin Celestine Gregory that my birthdate was not May 5 but April 12, a fact of which she was certain because I was born on the same day as her brother, Billy Nelson.
I was the fifth child, my father's fourth son in a family that would eventually grow to include fourteen children. My father's side of the family originally came from Bertie County in North Carolina, which may provide a clue as to the origin of my first name.
Mary Ragin was my mother's maiden name. I was told that she was uncommonly beautiful. My mother, with her glowing brown skin and her Indian-black straight hair, drew stares from men and women alike when she walked down the street. I don't remember her too well. She died when I was little, her heart stopping suddenly in a difficult childbirth. I don't remember how old she was when she died because I was so young.
my father, robert bowman, took another wife, Mary Rosa Richardson, a woman, like my mother, of strength, kindness, and compassion. Our family already had a full complement of children: John, Robert, Bertha, Charlie, and Annie before me, and then my two youngest brothers, Rufus and Ernest. But now our blended clan included Rosa's children: Charlotte, Larry, Wilhelmenia, Dorothy, and Jimmy Lee, who was adopted by my mother as a baby. My family counts the loss of a girl who lived for only one month as a part of the family as well. Rosa didn't replace my mother in my heart, but she was the woman who mostly raised me, and I loved her. My father made a very wise choice in choosing a mate. In contrast to my father, with his steel will, Rosa made us think that everything was possible and guided our household through some very tough times. She was pretty, with a smooth, fair-skinned complexion, and was unassuming even though she ruled us kids with a soft, firm command. If she couldn't make you obey her just by appealing to your sense of what was right, a well-placed threat would usually do the trick.
Of course, I wasn't perfect as a child. If I did something wrong, she would give me a little smack on the hands. Her discipline wasn't very much at all, compared to my father's. "I'm going to tell your father 'bout you being bad," my mother would warn our group with a stern face. "And you know what he will do to you if you don't do right. He'll heat your rear ends up with a switch and I know you won't like that."
My father laid down the rules to maintain the household, a set of tough regulations that would control a whole brood of youngsters and keep order. We cooperated and never challenged him. If the rule of law had broken down, everything would have dissolved into mayhem, and neither of my parents was going to stand for that foolishness. No back talk was tolerated. Chores were divided by gender.