MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today, we are going to bring you the last installment of our Black History Month series. All month long, we've been digging into some of the literature that has expanded our understanding of African-American lives through personal stories, the memoir.
African-American memoirs date as far back as the journals set down by former slaves. But we noticed that, these days, there seems to be a fresh zeal to tell a compelling personal story and over the course of this past month we have heard from a former Black Panther, a top journalist, a rising star in comedy and two women essayists debating what it means to be cool.
But, for our final conversation, we decided to turn to a man whose life story captures so much of the African-American experience in this country. We just had to conclude with him.
Bertie Bowman is the author of "Step By Step," a memoir of living the American dream. In the book, he describes how he made his way, step by step, from a poor farm in rural South Carolina to sweeping the steps of the capitol building to becoming a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among his duties there, he once supervised a hardworking nice young man from Arkansas named Bill whose last name happened to be Clinton and who wound up living at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. He'll tell us about that.
Bertie Bowman is now 81, but he has no intention of slowing down. He's still working for the Foreign Relations Committee, but he took time out to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Bertie Bowman, thank you so much for joining us.
BERTIE BOWMAN: Well, first, let me thank you for inviting me. My name is Bertie H. Bowman and I have enjoyed life very much.
MARTIN: Well, I want to hear more about that. The first thing, though, I've been asking all of our authors this month is: why did you decide to write a memoir, and why now?
BOWMAN: Because people kept telling me to write the story. A lot of them did not believe what I was telling them, just off the cuff, and my wife Elaine - I dedicate the book to her. She's now resting with the good Lord. She was involved in me writing this book.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I can understand why people don't believe it because it is an incredible story. You were born in Summerton, South Carolina. You were what? You were number five of 12 children. You mentioned that you didn't go hungry, but you knew it was a very hard life and, at some point, you decided you wanted something else for your life and at 13 years old you packed all your belongings into a flour sack, got on a train and came to Washington, D.C.
So the first thing I have to ask you is: why did you run away?
BOWMAN: I was thinking about coming to Washington all the time because of the other kids that when they get out of high school they usually either go to community college or leave for Philadelphia or New York, anyplace that I think they can be different than being on the farm. I never did like the farm. And they would say how great it was being in Washington, D.C., New York. They called it the promised land, but I found out - not the promised land, really, but it's what you make of it.
And then I happened to walk to MacDougal's store one day and this white man was talking to a group of people and he said, if you're ever in Washington, stop by to see him. He was telling the white folks that.
MARTIN: You were talking about Senator Burnet Maybank - was the...
BOWMAN: Burnet Maybank. Yeah, I know, Senator Burnet Maybank.
BOWMAN: Then, I didn't know who he was. I just knew he was a white gentleman there with a lot of shiny cars and chauffeurs. I grabbed him before he could close the door and I said, if I ever come to Washington, can I stop by to see you? He said, yes.
MARTIN: And you did.
BOWMAN: And I did.
MARTIN: And you did. Well, the story just boggles the mind that, you know, you'd never been off the farm. You'd never seen an indoor toilet, for example. You'd never been anywhere by yourself and at 13 years old, you somehow get yourself up there and there. And then - not only that - you actually go see the man in the Senate - and he gives you a job.
BOWMAN: Well, I guess it was a blessing that I lost my cousin's address because, once I slept a couple of nights in the Union Station, I tried to ask cab drivers out front - did they know my cousin. They'd kind of look at me and laugh. Where you from? Boy from the country or something like that? I didn't know the difference between being in Washington, D.C. and being in South Carolina because everybody knows everybody.
And I look up and I saw the cab and then I thought about Maybank and then that's when I took off to the capital.
MARTIN: And he gives you a job, you know, sweeping the steps and you later find out he's actually paying you out of his own pocket.
BOWMAN: He was paying me out of his own pocket and then, later, he called me in and said, I'm going to give you a real job. And I thought I had a real job.
MARTIN: You write very evocatively, though, about life in the Senate because you were such a hard worker. You were always looking to sort of pitch in. So you get jobs in the Senate barber shop and in the Senate bath. And, at some point, you become part of kind of the permanent staff. And you call yourselves the invisibles. Why did you all call yourselves the invisibles?
BOWMAN: Well, I use the word invisible because of the way the senators discussed things around the downstairs crew. You would think it was the only one in the room the way they would talk before us. And we learned a lot. And Mickey had told me when I started sweeping the steps, whatever you hear you leave it there.
MARTIN: Mickey was your supervisor when you first got to the Capitol.
BOWMAN: When I first sweeping the steps.
MARTIN: Set you sweeping the steps.
MARTIN: And you did a - and look out for you.
MARTIN: But, you know, you one of the reasons that this whole section in this whole book was so compelling to me is I think anybody who has worked in Washington is that, you know, there's this whole world of the monuments and the beautiful marble buildings. But then there's a whole other world of people who are making it work and look beautiful, that as you point out, like, nobody ever thinks about, that people don't think about. And to this day, most of the people making all that work and happen are African-American.
But you also talk about the fact that you form close relationships with a couple of really powerful people. And I'll just ask you about that. You know, one of them, of course, is Senator Strom Thurmond, a fellow South Carolinian, staunch segregationist, ran for president on the third-party ticket the Dixiecrat Party, but you all describe yourselves as friends. Do you think you were friends? Is that really - do you think he would say you were friends?
BOWMAN: Well, if I can take a few seconds...
MARTIN: Sure. Sure. Mm-hmm.
BOWMAN: ...to say that there were many celebrities, if you want to call them that, many senators, many foreign ministers, secretary of state I met, and it was just not only Thurmond and Helms and all that. But Thurmond and I became friends because of Maybank.
MARTIN: Do you think he would use that word too?
BOWMAN: I don't know. We never did discuss the situation about how blacks were being treated. I guess now I can realize I had my agenda and they had their agenda.
MARTIN: You know, people will remember that when he ran for president on the Dixiecrat Party, he had this to say about segregation. He said there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and emit the - we'll insert the word Negro here - race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.
But you also write that the word went out that if black folks needed something they would go to him and he would help them out.
BOWMAN: After I met him, when I first met him, I told him that I worked for Senator Maybank, he said OK, you are my constituent. He said if you ever need any help or any of your folks need any help or anybody need any help, come and let me know.
MARTIN: And he would help them out.
BOWMAN: And he'd help them out.
MARTIN: And, in fact, there's a...
BOWMAN: Black, blue, brown or white, Republican, Democrat, whatever you may have been...
MARTIN: And you had a personal experience with this. When you wanted to go to Howard University, one of the venerable institutes...
BOWMAN: Aw, gee.
MARTIN: ...of higher learning in Washington, D.C...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: And they said your grades weren't good enough - which you could understand, since you ran away at 13. And he did what?
BOWMAN: Well, if I may include, I went to American University also.
MARTIN: OK. Well.
BOWMAN: It was no problem there when I entered American University.
MARTIN: OK. Duly noted.
BOWMAN: So when I decided I majored in American government. So after a while he said Bertie, what happened? You didn't - you say you were going to school. I said well, I applied at Howard University and they were saying I needed some remedial courses or something to enter Howard. He said what? I say, yes. I said I've been waiting for a while. So he got on the phone. I don't know if he was talking to anyone or not, but he got on the phone and he said Bob, I have a young man down here - and believe it or not he said, you know, he didn't say boy, he said a young man - that tried to get in your school and you would not take him in. And he said Bob, don't you know 80 percent of your funds comes from the government? He said I'm going to send him back up there and it goes from there that I was accepted in Howard University within a week.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, there you go.
BOWMAN: Because of what Thurmond said.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to the author of "Step by Step: A Memoir of Living the American Dream," Bertie Bowman.
Talk to me, if you would though, of there are two different presidents that you talk about vividly in the book - two people who became presidents, and the first was LBJ. He was quite popular with the downstairs staff, as you say. Why was that?
BOWMAN: Johnson knew how blacks were treated from the get-go. And Johnson, he would give you the shirt off his back too, and curse you out, too, if he had to. When he come to the barbershop, the page boys who was in the barbershop, the other senators who were in there talking or something like that, they would put one at the door to let them know when Johnson - 'cause they were talking about him like a dog.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: They had to post somebody.
BOWMAN: And that's when I heard - I'm telling you the truth - and that they would let them know when Johnson comes in everyone act like, oh, they lovey-dovey, you know. And Johnson would come in. He said I know you're talking about me, you know. But if you try to put something in a bill that shouldn't go there, you can kiss your seat goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: He was all about it.
BOWMAN: He was all about it.
MARTIN: Then there was that young 21-year-old white guy named Bill, who you met when he worked as a messenger in the Senate and you were his supervisor. And it turns out that that young guy became the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton. Will you tell us a little bit about your friendship with Mr. Clinton?
BOWMAN: We became friends. He was singing. He liked "Blue Suede Shoes" and I like some other song we had. But we used to get back. He'd blow the saxophone. I used to pretend I'm playing a guitar. I never did learn how to play my guitar, but I was imitate, you know.
MARTIN: And why did people like him? You said he was also very popular with the staff. Why was that?
BOWMAN: He was another personal guy who kind of grew up with blacks and knew the things that they went through, knew how they suffered and stuff like that. It didn't matter to him; he wanted everybody to be treated fair. We discussed that a lot. But one thing that Bill Clinton and I never did discuss that him being president. We discussed that he would be attorney general. We discussed that he would be the governor. That's what we discussed. But then all of a sudden things started happening, you know, and he gave it a try 'cause everybody else was scared to run for the 41st president, Bush.
MARTIN: Bush. Mm-hmm.
BOWMAN: And Bill decided to do it and Ross Perot came in and make sure that Bill won.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: You do follow things, right? You know all about it, right?
BOWMAN: Let's get to Senator Helms. You didn't ask me about Senator Helms. But let me say but...
MARTIN: Yeah. Tell me about Senator Helms.
BOWMAN: Senator Helms often say when he came up to the Senate he said I heard about you. Strom would talked about you. See, Senator Strom had talked to Helms because they were very good friends.
MARTIN: But, you know, here again, here's somebody who, you know, filibustered the, you know, civil rights bill...
MARTIN: ...filibustered the Martin Luther King holiday, held up the creation of the Museum of African-American History and Culture...
MARTIN: ...which but only now has had its ground broken...
BOWMAN: Now. Yeah. West.
MARTIN: ...on the mall. And yet you consider him a friend?
BOWMAN: I consider him a friend. Like I say, he had his agenda and I had mine. My agenda were to try to make sure that I survived, help other people if I can. He called me Bud. And why he called me Bud I don't know and I never questioned it. And...
MARTIN: But he never called you boy or anything.
BOWMAN: He never called – but, well, Bud could be for boy, but he never called me boy. But so he brought me back to work after being in retirement for near 10 years. 'Cause he's often said he would make me the head coordinator of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
MARTIN: And you're still hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
BOWMAN: I'm still hearing coordinator, meet and greet, take care of all of the foreign policy stuff.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think your life means, Mr. Bertie Bowman? I mean when you look at the sort of the arc of your life, running away from home at 13, and folks can't see you, but you're quite elegantly attired. You have a beautiful four-in-hand. You've got your - one of your service business.
BOWMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: You've got three for your longstanding service. And what do you think your life means? What do you think it should stand for?
MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from your story?
BOWMAN: Well, I want them to draw from my story that number one, tell your grandkids, stay in school. Get that education. That's number one. You know, a lot of kids out here, especially the black kids, they can survive and be a good person or a celebrity or a rich person without getting a college degree. But I still say stay in school and get the education.
MARTIN: Bertie Bowman is the author of "Step by Step: A Memoir of Living the American Dream." And at the age of 81, he still serving as the hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.
BOWMAN: It's been a pleasure that you invited me down. I really appreciate the interview.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.