Bowman, Willie Interview #1
Bowman, Willie. Bronx African American History Project. By Brian Purnell. Fordham University Project, 26, October, 2007.
BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWERS: Brian Purnell
INTERVIEWEE: Mrs. Willie E.P. Bowman (Interview One)
SUMMARY BY: Andrew O’Connell
Born on November 30, 1931 in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Willie Ella Paschal Bowman spent just the first two years of her life in what she proudly described as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1933, she and her mother headed north to stay with Bowman’s great aunt in Harlem, part of the first wave of the Great Migration that would soon develop as one of the most significant movements of peoples that this country has ever seen. After earning three dollars a week as a domestic worker in Montgomery, Bowman’s mother found much greater success in the North, opening three grocery stores that serviced the Harlem community with a great emphasis on extending help to those who needed it the most. The family eventually moved to 1196 Fulton Avenue in the Bronx. Her stepfather, originally from South Carolina and with whom she and her mother had moved to New York, worked as one of the few black men in the construction business at the time. The owner of two dump trucks, Bowman’s stepfather overcame racial discrimination in the field to essentially set up his own business, which he worked at until the day he died.
Raised Catholic, Bowman attended parochial school throughout the majority of her young life. She went to the St. Aloysius School, with its predominately black population, before enrolling in Cathedral High School in Manhattan, where out of 831 graduates, African Americans comprised less than four percent of the class. Although Bowman described the race relations at Cathedral as a little more unfriendly than at her predominately black grammar school, she never pointed to race as being an overwhelming discriminatory factor at her school. Throughout the rest of her educational career, Bowman would go on to study at the Tuskegee Institute, Hostos Community College, Fordham University, and The New School.
Professionally, Bowman dedicated her life to working with those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law and behind bars. Working first with underage offenders, Bowman worked at Spofford Juvenile Center for boys and a similar institution for girls on Madina Avenue in the Bronx. Although the work as she described it in her first hand accounts seems tough (she admits to having been physically injured by inmates on a few occasions), Bowman also put forth that the job held several more rewarding factors, as she tells the story of several former subjects of hers who later came back to thank her for setting them on the straight and narrow path. Bowman also help set up voter registration campaigns at the detention centers. Before her career in correctional social work was over, Bowman had also worked at the Bronx House of Detention, the Brooklyn House of Detention, and Riker’s Island.
This interview with Bowman ends with a brief introduction to her political and community-organizing group, the Independent Voters Club, which Bowman describes in detail during a second interview.