James A. Bowley of Maryland was one of the first slaves rescued via the Underground Railroad in 1850.
He was also Harriet Tubman’s nephew. Supported by his unselfish aunt, he was educated in Philadelphia while his escaped sister and mother traveled farther north. After serving in the Union Navy during the Civil War, Bowley made his way south endeavoring to educate African-Americans as a teacher. He married Laura Clark, and served as an attorney, judge, newspaper publisher, education commissioner and State Representative while living at 231 King Street in Georgetown.
Bowley’s life, location and family legacy were honored and celebrated on “James Bowley Day” September 21, in a formal ceremony at the newly dedicated historical site. Thanks to the generosity of the new homeowner, Kent Hermes, who will be using it as his private residence once renovations are complete, celebrants were invited to enter the walls of the three-story home.
Next-door neighbor Doreen Gallant Green was one of the welcome visitors climbing the steep stairs. “I’m excited knowing that this history is right next door,” she said, confessing that she never knew that the home had belonged to a descendant of Harriet Tubman several owners ago.
Ernestine “Tina” Martin Wyatt, who is the great, great, great-grandniece of Bowley’s Aunt Harriet (Tubman) also stood on the second floor, looking out at Georgetown for the first time. “It does remind me of my house, the old Victorian style.”
Sabrina Edwards of Columbia, South Carolina also joined the conversation. “I love history, especially our history. This is great to have a marker in Georgetown in this great house that her [Harriet Tubman’s] nephew lived in,” remarked Edwards.
The ceremony began on the front lawn with Mayor Brendon Barber reading his proclamation that acknowledged Bowley’s accomplishments and contributions to Georgetown. He considered it a “very important day in my life and also with the rest of the citizens in attendance here.”
Georgetown County School Superintendent Randy Dozier introduced the school board members who were present and thanked Mr. Steve Williams for inviting him to speak.
“Yesterday I read some of the letters and correspondence between Harriet Tubman and James Bowley. I would encourage you to read and look at some of that; it’s very moving--it’s very personable.” The history enthusiast said that he was very moved by their words and noted Georgetown’s rich history. “When we look at the remarkable lives of these two individuals, they represent the best of humanity regarding their struggle for personal freedom, equality, the right to a free education for all, social justice, the right to run for office and serve in political office—all these things we now sometimes take for granted. Because of their efforts, this world is a better place today,” said Dozier, encouraging the audience to keep going in the additional work that needs to be done.
District 4 City Council Member Lillie Jean Johnson spoke of the landmark’s place in African-American history. “Yes, we are rich in our history,” said Johnson. “We are so grateful for a team that got together to make sure that this home will be recognized and acknowledged the world over. Everybody will beat a path to this home, especially with the rich history that is involved and I am happy that one little brick is being placed on the wall of African-American history in Georgetown County.”
President Vervatine Reid spoke on behalf of the Georgetown Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority to express her gratitude for being in the midst of the project. Reid noted that the Bowley House was the seventh historical marker they have helped erect in the area. “Georgetown Alumnae Chapter is known to preserve the history of Georgetown County and we are honored.” Delta Sigma member Angela Prioleau also lead “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Following presentations from Senator Ronnie Sabb, Edwin Breeden from the SC Department of Archives and History, and Tubman scholar Kate Larson, mistress of ceremonies Marilyn Hemingway introduced local author and historian Steve Williams who spoke emotionally about the culmination of the project. “Harriet Tubman is for all of us and now, so is James Bowley. Yes. I’ve been under the weather the last five months,” he continued. ”There were days I didn’t think I was going to be here, but I’m here today and I thank God that I lived to see this day.” He shared credit for the project with homeowner Kent Hermes, Dr. Kate Larson, Dr. Edwin Breeden, Gullah Geechee Chamber President Marilyn Hemingway. Williams displayed his children’s book illustrated by local artist Allen Dennison, who also donated a painting of Tubman that was up for silent auction bids.
Ernestine Wyatt, Tubman’s great, great, great-grandniece for the reception spoke at the reception that followed at the Georgetown County Museum. The Washington DC resident said she learned to keep her familial ties to Tubman quiet while growing up because people didn’t’ believe her. A registered nurse and teacher, Wyatt also spoke of Tubman’s attitude toward preserving the union. “I know how great America can be,” said Wyatt of Tubman’s beliefs and commitment to working as a union spy during the Civil War. “She was an American Patriot. Most of all, she just had the love of God in her and she let that love go towards other people and that’s what God wants us all to do, so remember that. ”
Other weekend events included a Friday morning at the Georgetown County Library with Dr. Kate Larson, writer of the award-winning book “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” Larson also traveled to Coastal Carolina University to present a lecture in the Johnson Auditorium sponsored by the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies.
Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. over a dozen ladies joined a GirlTrek health walk lead by organizers Marilyn Hemingway and Towanda Ford. The group toured downtown for 3.5 miles paying special attention to the historical churches and sites. Returning to the Bowley House, they celebrated with chaperone Marvin Neal under a “victory bridge.”
Tamelia Hemingway drove down early from Little River to absorb all the cultural history she could. Accompanied by her two daughters, Zamaria and Tamira, and niece Peyton, Hemingway said, “I’m going to be here all day,” energized by the walking tour and camaraderie of the women.
Gloria Bromell Tinuba, U.S. Senatorial candidate, was one of the women walking beside her. “I just want to say that Harriet Tubman is my hero,” commented Tinuba.
Some area churches extended the celebration to Sunday, hoping to pay homage at worship services.