Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, a fixture on Capitol Hill for 60 years and the longest-serving Black congressional staffer, died Wednesday. He was 92.
Bowman died due to complications from recent heart surgeries at a Maryland rehabilitation facility, his stepdaughter, LaUanah King-Cassell, told The Washington Post.
Bowman worked in Washington, D.C., since he was 13 years old, according to his 2008 autobiography, “Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream.” A son among the 13 children of sharecroppers, the young Bowman was at a local store to barter for items in 1944 when Sen. Burnet R. Maybank, who was back home in South Carolina campaigning for reelection, told those assembled: “If you ever get up to Washington, D.C., drop by and see me,” the Post reported.
As the senator got into his limousine, Bowman asked him, “If I come to Washington, can I come by and see you, too?”
“Certainly, my boy,” responded Maybank.
So, Bowman, dreaming of a better life, ran away from his South Carolina home and went to Washington, D.C. He found Maybank, who created a job for the teen — sweeping the U.S. Capitol’s steps for $2 a week — and personally paid him.
Once Bowman had done it diligently for five years, during which he slept nights on area benches until he could afford proper housing, Maybank found him employment at a coffee shop inside the Capitol.
After an array of jobs, in 1966, he got a clerical position with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There, a year later, he met a young congressional clerk named William Jefferson Clinton, whom Bowman mentored.
The former U.S. president penned the forward to “Step by Step,” the Post noted, and in it, he shared: “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. He epitomizes the kind of citizen that makes this country great.”
Bowman also worked closely with two late segregationist senators, North Carolina’s Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond of his home state, and considered them friends. He once admitted to NPR that Thurmond had said things that hurt him, though Bowman also said the longtime South Carolina senator helped get him into Howard University. He didn’t graduate from the HBCU, yet studied business there for two years.
Bowman also told C-SPAN he had no problem calling the two senators his friends.
“Anytime you have someone that’s going to do things for you or ready to help you when you’re in need and stick by, that’s one reason why I call them my friend,” he said.
Over those 60 years working on Capitol Hill, Bowman rubbed elbows with the Washington power elite across political party lines. Upon learning of his death, D.C. mainstays such as Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Republican former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, now the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, were among those who shared remembrances and sent condolences on social media.
Kerry, in a post on X, revealed a photo of himself and Bowman locked in a bear hug.
“For 57 years – 57 years! – if 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. His title may have been ‘hearing coordinator,’ but it could’ve just as easily been ‘heart and soul,’” Kerry wrote in the post. He ended it by saying Bowman “was a great human and I’ll miss him.”
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