At 83, His Work Still Touches Lives

'Much To Do' Remains For Dean Ofministers

September 18, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The leading civil rights leader in Annapolis threw down his sign andwalked away from pickets surrounding a segregated restaurant on MainStreet.

On that day in 1960, Leroy Bowman saw something that jolted him -- the face of the restaurant owner, staring desperately back through the plate glass. No one had been able to get into the restaurant for weeks, ever since Bowman and his supporters began protesting.

"You're making this man's family go hungry so you can get your rights, and you call yourself a Christian?" Bowman asked himself.

Hedidn't walk in another picket line.

Thirty-one years later, Bowman, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, remains one of the strongest forces for civil rights in Annapolis. But as a minister, he says he cannot countenance hurting others, even for a good cause.

"Jesusis the key to the situation," Bowman says. "There's nothing he did that wouldn't work today, if we had the courage. Jesusjust treated everybody alike."

The minister pauses on the steps of his brick church. He is 83, graceful in a straw Panama hat and linen suit, and he has lived through many worlds.

Bowman has traveled from backwater Virginia to the halls of Congress, from a town too small to have its own church to the pastorate of one of the most influential black congregations in the state capital.

He has survived a triple heart bypass and returned to his pulpit with more fire than ever.

Says Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden, "He's probably touched more people's livesin Annapolis than any current minister. He's considered the dean of black ministers in Anne Arundel County."

As an activist, Bowman helped integrate public housing and helped launch civil rights demonstrations, such as the picketing of segregated restaurants, during the '60s.

In 1980, his church served as the focus for a protest called Tent City, in which Annapolitans camped out to dramatize the plight of poor people in the state. Last year, he worked to pass a bill that prohibits city clubs from discriminating on the basis of race, religion or sex.

Equally impressive to Annapolitans is Bowman himself, aman residents say is unequaled in genuine charity. "When I think of him, I always quote a passage from Isaiah about a good and just man, with eyes for the blind and feet for the lame," says Pip Moyer, mayorof Annapolis during much of the '60s. "He's one of the outstanding men I've known."

Bowman personifies graciousness as he ushers a visitor into his office at the West Washington Street church, murmuring deprecations about how it isn't much of an office. He's right: The walls are plain white; two brown vinyl chairs face each other across anugly orange carpet.

But as he settles himself into one of those chairs and starts to talk, soon only his voice and his lean, wrinkled face seem important.

Growing up on a small farm in Virginia, the youngster would siton the porch of his grandparents' home at night, listening to the whistle of trains, wishing he were on them.

The home was strongly religious, a stopping-place for the area's traveling minister when he came to town. "The preacher was my role model. He wasthe most interesting man I saw. He fit in with how I imagined Christ," says Bowman.

When the minister talked about having faith to overcome difficulties, his words "burned in my young heart," Bowman recalls. At age 8, he walked a sawdust trail to kneel at a mourner's bench and receive Christ. "This was old-time religion, and I wanted to besaved. As a Christian, church seemed to me kind of near to Jesus. That's the way it was."

Bowman later moved to Washington to live with his mother, finding himself a farm boy among urban students in the middle of a rough city.

A difficult adolescence was brightened by a girl Bowman met in the sixth grade. "Julia Elizabeth wasn't thinking about no boys, but there was a boy in her class thinking about her," he says, chuckling. "It was love at first sight." They married after high school.

The rest of Bowman's life didn't fall in place as easily . He was restless; he considered becoming a sailor; he worked as a houseman for a wealthy family; he studied at Baptist Theological Seminary in Washington but dropped out.

The pastor of his local church, who'd started as a skilled laborer and put himself through college, became Bowman's next mentor. Following his example, Bowman finished seminary to became the assistant minister at the church.

Aboutthe same time, he took the civil service exam and landed a job with the Department of Agriculture.

"My first day at work for the government, I thought I had clout," he recalls. "They gave me papers to deliver, and I cut across a lawn. A policeman yelled at me, and I said,'Don't bother me. I've got something to deliver for the government.'"

The officer made Bowman retrace his steps to avoid walking on the lawn.

But his pride got a boost when he moved to the Treasury Department as a personal assistant to Henry Morgenthau Jr., the third-most important man in the Kennedy cabinet.

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