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Bertie Bowman, the longest serving African-American congressional staffer, dies at 92

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, Capitol Hill is known for partisanship and dysfunction - see the speakership drama of the past three weeks. But we're going to spend the next couple of minutes remembering a man who embodied a different sensibility.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Bertie Bowman was the longest-serving African American Capitol Hill staffer in history. He died this week at 92 years old.

SUMMERS: The story of Bowman's long congressional career began in 1944 at a tiny store in South Carolina, where Democratic Senator Burnet Maybank was campaigning for reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BERTIE BOWMAN: One day I went to MacDougall's (ph) store, and all these cars - black, shiny cars and the chauffeurs all dressed neat and everything. And this man - this white man - Senator Maybank, now I know - was running for reelection. That was back in 1944. I was - I just had turned 13 years old. But when he left, his last words were, if you ever get to Washington, come by and see me, boy. And the people just clapped.

CHANG: Bowman took Senator Maybank at his word. He did go to Washington, and he did go and see Senator Maybank, who hired him to sweep the Capitol steps, paying Bowman's salary himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOWMAN: I didn't think that was going to happen like that. But we Southerners - we stick together.

SUMMERS: One job led to another. And by the time Bowman retired, he was the scheduler for the Foreign Relations Committee. Over nearly eight decades, Bowman worked for the likes of Strom Thurmond and J. William Fulbright. Both men were segregationists, but Bowman called them friends. He talked about the complexity of those relationships with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP: If you have somebody like Strom Thurmond, though, and he's giving these segregation speeches...

BOWMAN: You wonder - how could he be so kind to me and say all these other bad things? Like - now, I'd be telling you a lie if I said some things he said didn't hurt me if that's what you want to hear. The good outweighed the bad, the way I look at it.

SUMMERS: Bowman took pride in treating everyone with kindness and respect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Some people who haven't spent time in the Capitol may find it amazing to think that you're up here, that you're working in this huge committee room, that you're working around 21 senators who are Democrats or Republicans, some of whom are running for president, and you're working hard to treat them all the same and be nonpolitical. Some people may find that to be an impossible task.

BOWMAN: Yeah. But it's not hardworking to - trying to treat them nice. No. 1, my mother told me to be patient and do what you're supposed to do. Be truthworthy (ph) and be dependable. And that takes care a lot of things. And I'll find out if it takes care a lot of things with me.

CHANG: One of the senators whom Bowman worked with, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, told CBS in 2019 that Bowman reminded people of something important that has been lost in Congress...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "UMI SAYS")

CHANG: ...Civility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "UMI SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.

Kira Wakeam
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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