Pastor a living witness to church's long history

October 17, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,Sun Staff Writer

The Rev. Leroy Bowman first saw Annapolis from the back window of a segregated bus. He didn't know a thing about the city, never envisioned himself there and wasn't particularly impressed when it came into view.

But five decades after that bitter cold January day, the pastor is still in town and still preaching at First Baptist Church, just a short walk from the old bus station.

"I never would have thought this is where I'd find my home," said Mr. Bowman, nestling into the worn leather recliner in his living room, with books and old newspapers in neat stacks around him. "But after I arrived in Annapolis it did impress me. I never left."

Next month the church on West Washington Street turns 101 years old. For half its life, Mr. Bowman stood in the pulpit. He is its living history and a witness to the changes, and constants, in his congregation.

"In many ways, people are concerned about the same things," said Mr. Bowman, 85, his brow furrowed with a dozen lines. "People are under great strain and stress. And they have a double load. They carry it because of the color of their skin."

Mr. Bowman grew up with his grandparents and brother in a rural Virginia town near Petersburg. He learned to read and write in a one-room schoolhouse while his mother was working as a cook in Washington, D.C.

When he was 10, he moved to Washington to be with his mother. By the time he reached the sixth grade, he already had met his future wife, Julia. When he started classes at American University, he had discovered his calling as a preacher. And by his 35th birthday, he had reached Annapolis.

Now he lives alone -- his wife died four years ago. Mr. Bowman and Annapolis almost never met. It was during World War II, the town was in flux and the preacher at First Baptist was about to retire. A top candidate to replace him was supposed to address the congregation that Sunday, but got sick at the last minute and stayed home. Mr. Bowman came instead, delivering a spur-of-the-moment sermon that endeared him to the crowd.

He watched the city change. When he arrived, the tree-lined avenues of the Clay Street neighborhood around the church were filled with small homes and businesses all owned by black families.

But unemployment and crime have taken hold. Most of the stores are gone. The neighborhood faces new trials with each decade.

In the early 1960s, when Annapolis store owners denied blacks equal service, he picketed the city's movie theaters, bus stops and restaurants. He joined the march on Washington and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.

So he is all the more indignant when he sees those gains sacrificed to present-day racism. "It's become so tiresome," he said, beating his fist on the leather chair with each word.

But Mr. Bowman doesn't look tired, and he said he wants to preach at First Baptist as long as he's alive.

"We get tired in our work, but we don't ever get tired of our work," he said.

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