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Chapter 1: The Capitol Steps

Longest-Serving Black Hill Staffer Shares His Story

Bill Clinton, Lyndon B. Johnson and Strom Thurmond. These are just a few of the political figures Bertie Bowman has counted as friends over the past 60-some years.

Bowman tells the tale of these friendships and the historical events he witnessed during his long career in the Senate in his new book, “Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance and Living the American Dream.”

“You could say ‘Bertie had a good time,’” Bowman said in an interview last week. “I’m not saying it was perfect, but I have no regrets.”

He arrived on Capitol Hill in 1944, drawn to Washington by a particularly riveting speech by then-Sen. Burnet Maybank (D-S.C.). Maybank told his listeners to come and see him if they were ever in Washington, and the then-13-year-old Bowman decided that farm life wasn’t for him and he would take the Senator up on his offer.

Bowman ran away from his home and family in Summerton, S.C., and hopped a train to Union Station. Relying on the kindness of strangers, he made his way to the Capitol to find Maybank and a new life for himself.

“Oh boy, what a trip it was, a beautiful trip!” he said. “When I got to Union Station, boy I saw so many lights. I thought I was in the promised land.”

True to his word, Maybank met with Bowman, despite the fact that Bowman was black and racial tensions ran high at the time. The Senator took Bowman under his wing, giving him a job sweeping the Capitol steps for $2 a week. Maybank also took the time to mentor the young boy, teaching him the value of working hard and saving money.

Bowman later found out that he wasn’t on the Senate payroll; instead Maybank paid him out of his own pocket. “I guess we Southerners stick together,” Bowman said.

Bowman moved on to work a variety of jobs on the Hill, eventually landing a position with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was there that he met a young messenger by the name of Bill Clinton. At the time, Clinton was a student at Georgetown University and Bowman was his supervisor. The two hit it off right away, sharing a love of music and hamburgers.

“We had a little radio in our office, and we both loved Elvis,” Bowman writes. “Whenever an Elvis record came on, we’d turn the radio up and sing along.”

Even after he graduated and returned to Arkansas, Clinton maintained a friendship with Bowman. He would come back to visit his old boss on occasion and wrote the foreword to Bowman’s book.

Bowman also befriended another president, Lyndon B. Johnson, while he was Senate Majority Leader. In the book, Bowman notes Johnson’s love of cursing, peach ice cream and Fresca.

“No one cursed as loudly and creatively as Lyndon Johnson,” Bowman writes. In an effort to put a smile on the Senator’s face, Bowman made it his job to make sure Johnson always had a bowl of peach ice cream when he was in the Senate bath.

Perhaps the most surprising friendship of Bowman’s tenure was the one he had with then- Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Despite the Senator’s reputation as a segregationist, Bowman developed a relationship with him. “There wasn’t a day he didn’t meet me in the hall and stop,” Bowman said, adding that any criticisms of his friendship with Thurmond went “in one ear and out the other.”

There is a big difference between what a Senator says on the stump and what he does in his personal life, Bowman notes in the book. Thurmond needed to be against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to maintain his seat in office, Bowman said, but when Thurmond wasn’t fishing for votes, the Senator was kind to blacks and often asked Bowman if his family needed help with any state matters.

Bowman still works in the Senate today, acting as hearing coordinator for the Foreign Relations Committee. He is the longest-serving black Congressional staffer.

“My favorite part is taking care of those 21 Senators,” Bowman said of his job. “I come in lit up everyday.”

Despite his job advancements over the years, Bowman still feels a connection to the Capitol steps. It has become more difficult to get to them as security has changed over the years, he said, but many of the guards know him and let him through.

“I always go back to the steps and take a look around,” he said.

While Bowman believes he has led a wonderful life, he does not advise young people today to make the same decisions that he did all those years ago.

“Running away to start a new life at age 13 may have been good for Bertie Bowman in 1944,” he writes. “But I do not recommend it for any child in these different times!”

Bowman will be signing copies of his book at the Trover Shop on Thursday.

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