Steve Williams

Steve Williams

Not to be hyperbolic, but Harriet Tubman has been dead 106 years and three months, but she is still trending. The recent controversy of not honoring her on the new $20 bill is a hot topic on social media.

What has this to do with Georgetown, South Carolina? I’m glad you asked. As I write, it’s Election Day in Georgetown, and every Election Day for the last 10 years I’ve listened to would be elected officials (particularly in the city of Georgetown) opined about the need for more industry and jobs. I’ve listened to their theories and promises about dredging the port, expanding the steel mill, building hotels, and attracting big box stores.

But the truth is Georgetown is like so many other small towns in its endeavor to keep up with the shifting world economy.

Nevertheless, Georgetown differs from other small towns in its ability to attract tourists. If you don’t believe me, take a leisurely stroll downtown on Front Street on any given weekend. You see hundreds of people from all over the nation frequenting our parks, stores, restaurants, bars, churches, cemeteries, antebellum homes, and more.

So why are we throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? Why are we musing about acquiring a big box store or some big company while tourism is steady generating revenue? Don’t play this cheap!

When the newly uncovered news broke about the relationship of Harriet Tubman and Georgetown, the first thing that came to my mind was thousands of tourists wanting to know more about it. Already, tourists are flocking to remote places in Maryland, New York, Canada, and even Port Royal, South Carolina, to learn about Harriet Tubman. Why shouldn’t Georgetown capitalize on her celebrity?

I realize in this highly polarized political climate we live in not everybody has a high opinion of Harriet Tubman. Some will find fault with her just as they found fault with another celebrity connected with the history of Georgetown — Michelle Obama.

But let’s face it, had it not been for Harriet Tubman and people like her, both Michelle Obama and I would be in the physical bondage of serving the economic needs of others. So yes, I’m going to celebrate the life of Harriet Tubman even if no one else does. The fact that she loved Georgetown (the place of my forefathers and foremothers) makes it even easier for me.

You’ve probably heard the old proverb, “give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Well, Harriet Tubman did just that. After she liberated her people, she took the time to make sure they were adequately educated and trained with a skill, especially her favorite nephew, James Bowley.

But she never dreamed of what would become of him. Here are 11 things that did:

1. He became a respected agent with the Freedmen’s Bureau. Inspired by his aunt who had seen firsthand the tremendous hardships of the newly freed slaves in Port Royal, Bowley came to Georgetown in 1867. As an agent, he negotiated legal contracts between planters and sharecroppers, resolved disputes, and educated the newly freed slaves about their civil rights.

2. In 1868 Bowley taught students on the Rice Hope Plantation in Georgetown for the Freedmen’s Bureau.

3. By 1869 he had worked his way up to Commissioner of Georgetown County schools.

A staunch advocate for free and public education for all people, Bowley said this in a report drafted for the state superintendent of education in 1869, “both races are anxious for free schools, as they are not able to educate their children themselves. Yet there may arise a little contention about separate schools for the two races; but, as far as I’m concerned, I will not advocate separate schools.”

4. Later In 1869, he was duly elected to the South Carolina Legislature where he served until 1874.

5. In 1872 he became the 20th black lawyer to be admitted to this South Carolina Bar and only the second black lawyer to appear in the courts of Georgetown.

6. He became the Chairman of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee helping to allocate and distribute funds to various causes — particularly education.

7. In 1873 he was elected to the Board of Trustees for the University of South Carolina where he opened the doors for all races to attend this venerable institution

8. He sponsored a bill for the enactment of the Union Savings Bank of Georgetown.

9. In 1873 he published a newspaper called The Georgetown Planet.

10. After the Union Army left the South in 1877, things dramatically changed for blacks throughout the South. Bowley was no exception. He returned to teaching in Georgetown’s Colored Graded School, helping them secure “the best educational facility they ever enjoyed” according to Principal P. G. Drayton.

11. Before he died in January of 1891, Bowley would get elected to the esteemed position of Probate Judge for the County of Georgetown.

Harriet Tubman, a victim of brutal unkindness, but who suffered not the disease of possibility blindness, probably never dreamed that the little 6-year-old boy she freed from a lifetime of servitude would grow up to be a respected public servant. In 1850, this was simply unthinkable for blacks.

None of us knows what any of us will become until we are challenged. In December 1850, a fearless angel of mercy named Harriet Tubman thought it not robbery to challenge the status quo and free her beloved family members. She not only moved little James out of harm’s way, but she secured a proper education for him. “Education,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, “is the guiding light that will enable men and women to lift themselves out of the dark depths of poverty and ignorance to the majestic heights of knowledge and prosperity.” Still, one can get all A’s in school and still flunk life.

By liberating Bowley and his family in 1850, Harriet Tubman gave him the opportunity, but James made the most out of the opportunity he was given

After the Civil War, Georgetown was fortunate to have two extraordinary civil servants to put a city torn apart back together – James Bowley and Mayor W. D. Morgan. From 1890 to 1915 Morgan’s improvements of Georgetown’s port and harbor systems, sewers, plumbing, streetlights, sidewalks, banking, budget, bond rating, and building projects made him a top-notch mayor second to none.

He tirelessly worked to improve the quality of life for citizens of Georgetown. As a result, citizens have erected two historical markers in his honor in Georgetown – at Morgan Park and in front of his house on the corner of Prince and Broad Streets.

James Bowley also worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life for all of Georgetown’s citizens. His famous aunt may have given him the opportunity, but from 1867 to 1891, it was he who soared like an eagle ushering Georgetown out of centuries of darkness into the marvelous light.

This September, join us in honoring him as we unveil a historical marker in front of his house on the corner of King and Highmarket Streets.

Harriet would be proud.

Steve Williams is an award-winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.