Who, where, and what is James Bowley Day?
I’m glad you asked. In December of 1850 James Alfred Bowley, along with his sister and mother, was the first person Harriet Tubman liberated on her famed Underground Railroad. Although they were two years apart in age and considered themselves sisters, Bowley's mother, Kessiah Bowley, was Harriet Tubman’s niece. When Harriet learned that Kessiah and her children were going to be sold off in an auction, she devised a plan to rescue them.
Why is this important?
Well, it just so happened that 17 years later, James migrated to Georgetown and accomplished some pretty extraordinary things. So Mayor Barber has officially declared this Saturday, September 21, 2019, James Bowley Day in Georgetown. The celebration will begin this Friday and last until Sunday (more about this later.)
James was only 6 years old when Tubman freed him, but she thought it not robbery to see that he was properly educated. Illiterate herself, Harriet Tubman was a visionary who understood how meaningful it was to be formally educated.
During the Civil War Tubman helped liberate hundreds of enslaved people in Beauford, South Carolina. After the war, she returned to live in Auburn, New York, but her push to educate James paid off. Harriet urged him to return to the South and help the newly emancipated people so in 1867 Bowley came to Georgetown as a Freedmen's Bureau agent.
As you can probably imagine, after the war, conditions were pretty awful for most people, but for the newly emancipated blacks, they were inconceivable. As an agent, Bowley distributed food, clothing, and other needed items to the poor. He informed them of their new rights and helped them negotiate contracts with planters.
Besides lacking food, clothing, and shelter, the emancipated people lacked something else – an education. Many believed education was the guiding light that would enable them to lift themselves out of the dark depths of poverty and ignorance to the majestic heights of knowledge and prosperity. Bowley first became a teacher before rising to the position of Commissioner of Schools for Georgetown County. Later, as a state legislator, he advocated for more funding for Georgetown schools.
In 1868, schools were scarcely funded by our state government. That year, Bowley reached out to Tubman, who reached out to her influential friends in New York. Together, they organized Freedmen’s Fairs where people donated books, food, clothing, money, and other educational supplies for Tubman’s nephew to take back to Georgetown. In 1868 Tubman's Freedom Fairs raised over $500 for Bowley's students twice. Today $500 would be equivalent to $10,000.
What else did Bowley accomplish, you say?
In 1872, he became the 20th black to pass the South Carolina Bar and only the second black to practice law in the courts of Georgetown.
Did he have political aspirations?
Yes, like Joseph Haynes Rainey who was educated, Bowley had an advantage over other blacks. While many white Southerners opined that illiterate blacks were not fit to govern, blacks who were educated were not burdened with this label. After successfully running for a seat on the South Carolina Legislature, Bowley soon became the chairman of the prestigious Ways and Means committee.
What about higher education?
In 1873 he was a trustee for the University of South Carolina. At the time, there was an unwritten law barring blacks from attending this college. Along with the other trustees, Bowley opened the doors for blacks to attend this venerable institution - although it lasted only four years from 1873 to 1877.
What else did he do to help the people of Georgetown?
By 1874, the literacy rate for formerly enslaved blacks had risen significantly. Bowley founded a newspaper called the Georgetown Planet to keep people abreast of what was happening in their government.
Also, after centuries of free labor, blacks were now earning wages for their work. Bowley sponsored a bill to establish the Union Savings Bank of Georgetown to help people save their hard-earned money.
After the Union Army left the South in 1877, Bowley left politics and returned to teaching in one of Georgetown’s “colored” schools. Later, by popular demand, he was elected Probate Judge of Georgetown. He passed away in 1891.
How did I get involved in securing a historical marker for him?
After learning of Bowley’s relationship with Harriet Tubman from Dr. Kate Larson’s award-winning book, ‘Bound for the Promised Land’ I was inspired. When it comes to scholarly Tubman research, Dr. Larson is widely considered the gold standard.
A mutual friend introduced me to Mr. Kent Hermes, the current owner of the home Bowley lived in in the 1800s. Mr. Hermes had also uncovered a lot of little known facts about Bowley. We quickly realized we needed to pool our resources and petition the State Department for a historical marker to commemorate Bowley's achievements.
Even before the State Department approved our research, I reached out to Ms. Marilyn Hemingway of the Gullah Geechee Chamber to join us in raising funds to pay for the marker. Marilyn organized a Go-Fund-Me website/campaign and meticulously drafted numerous press releases to inform the community of our Tubman-Bowley Project.
What was the response?
Excellent, from the beginning, we wanted the Bowley-Tubman project to be for the whole community. Harriet Tubman is trending, and I suspect she’ll be trending 100 years from now. Tubman could not have known back in 1850 how successful Bowley would become, but she knew slavery was wrong and was bold enough to do something about it.
Like Jackie Robinson, who carried the weight of an entire race on his shoulders in 1947, James Bowley lifted newly emancipated blacks who depended on him. Had he failed to exemplify strong leadership, many whites, and even some blacks, would have continued to embrace the belief that blacks were intellectually unfit to govern.
But the Georgetown community has warmly supported our efforts to celebrate Bowley's accomplishments. The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority contributed half of the money we needed to purchase the historical marker. The rest of the funds came from local merchants, elected officials, church members, and everyday people. This marker was indeed a grassroots effort.
So what and where are the events? With the gracious support of Georgetown County Library director Dwight McInvaill, Dr. Larson will kick off the celebrations with a lecture and Q&A this Friday at the library located at 405 Cleland Street at 10 a.m.
At 4 p.m., she'll be speaking at Coastal Carolina University at the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies at Johnson Auditorium Wall 116.
Dr. Larson’s book will be available for purchasing, but there will also be an opportunity for people to win it as a door prize at the library. In addition, my new children's book, entitled "As I Travel Along: the story of Harriet Tubman and James Bowley," will also be available to purchase or win as a door prize.
I wrote my book in English and Gullah. Two local artists helped me complete the project, Allen Dennison and Rev. Gloria Barr Ford. Dennison’s colorful illustrations are spectacular and Ford, an author, playwright, poet, and performing artist, rendered her extraordinary talents with witty Gullah translations. In Addition, Mr. Dennison will be auctioning an original painting of Harriet Tubman for some lucky person this weekend at the library and museum.
Saturday will kick off with Marilyn Hemingway leading a ‘GirlTrek’ Health Walkathon through the historic community of Georgetown. The walkathon will begin at 231 King Street at 8 a.m.
We will officially unveil the historical marker at 11:30 a.m. in front of the Bowley House located at 231 King St. Elected officials from across the city, county, and state will be in attendance along with Dr. Larson and Ernestine Wyatt, a relative of Harriet Tubman, Other noted attendees will include superintendent, Dr. Randy Dosier, members of our school board, ministers, sororities, fraternities, and educators. The Bowley House is currently under renovation, but Mr. Hermes may open the interior for viewing.
At 12:30 p.m., there will be a meet-and-greet reception with Dr. Larson, Ernestine Wyatt, Steve Williams, Kent Hermes, and Marilyn Hemingway at the Georgetown Museum located at 120 Broad Street. Light refreshments will be served.
Due to Hurricane Dorian, the play ‘Harriet's Return’ initially scheduled for 6 PM that evening had to be rescheduled for late October this year.
On Sunday, everyone is invited to attend services with Ernestine Wyatt at Bethel AME Church at 417 Broad Street at 10 a.m. as the Pastor, Dr. Betty Clark, has declared Sunday James Bowley Day at Bethel. Bowley was a member of this historic congregation.
You must be very proud of this weekend events?
I am. Georgetown is wells- deep in history, and I am pleased to be a part of it. I was there when they dedicated Joseph Rainey Park on Front Street in 1993. I wrote and read an original poem that day in Rainey’s honor. This will be another memorable moment in my life.
For more information, I can be reached at (864) 346-0749, or firstname.lastname@example.org.