James A. Bowley’s achievements now highlighted on historic marker at his former home in Georgetown
Inspired by his great-aunt Harriet Tubman, James Bowley was a freed slave who lived in Georgetown from 1866 to 1880. He was a successful teacher, school commissioner, state legislator, college trustee and newspaper publisher.
Now his life and the connection between Harriet Tubman and Georgetown are being honored by a historic marker, which was unveiled on Sept. 21 at the James Bowley House at 231 King St. in Georgetown. The marker was made possible through the efforts of the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce; the local chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; owner of the Bowley House, Kent Hermes; and historian, newspaper columnist and author Steve Williams.
“I’m so proud that this story was discovered and we are here today to celebrate it and share it, not only with Georgetonians, but with people all around the state, the country and the world,” said Marilyn Hemingway, president of the Gullah Geechee Chamber.
To make the celebration official, Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber proclaimed Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 “James Bowley Day in Georgetown.” Also, Bethel American Methodist Episcopal Church, where Bowley was a member, proclaimed Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, James Bowley Day.
Several events were held in the city to spread the word about this part of Georgetown’s hidden history, now in the spotlight. On Friday, Sept. 20, the Georgetown County Library’s main branch in Georgetown and the Johnson Auditorium at Coastal Carolina University hosted a talk by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.”
On Saturday, Sept. 21, a historic marker dedication ceremony in front of the house was followed by a reception at the Georgetown County Museum with Larson, Williams, Hermes and a direct descendent of Harriet Tubman’s, her great-grand-niece, Ernestine Martin Wyatt, who was in town for the events with her husband, Donald. Wyatt also spoke during the Sunday church service at Bethel AME.
Wyatt, who traveled from Washington, D.C., for the event said during the marker dedication that she was thrilled to be part of the momentous occasion.
“I think the house is beautiful and I love the idea that (Bowley) made so many contributions to society and carried on Harriet Tubman’s legacy,” she said.
Williams, who was overwhelmed with emotion during the ceremony, agreed. He added that he has been under the weather for the last few months and didn’t know if he would make the event.
“There were days I didn’t think I would be here,” he said. “But I’m here today and I thank God that I lived to see this day.”
Williams is the author of a children’s book about Bowley and Tubman titled “As I Travel Along: The Story of Harriet Tubman and James Bowley,” which is written in both English and Gullah. Georgetown resident Gloria Barr Ford did the Gullah translations for the book. The book is available from Williams, in local shops and online at amazon.com.
Larson, who wrote her dissertation about Tubman at the University of New Hampshire, said like his great-aunt, who had an amazing life freeing slaves, nursing Civil War soldiers and spying for the Union, Bowley committed himself to a life of service after being freed. He settled in Georgetown in 1866 after joining the U.S. Navy and fighting against slavery in the Civil War.
“It is this home that is the physical, tangible representation of African-American struggles and triumphs, fighting for civil rights, education, economic opportunity, family and community building,” Larson said during the dedication ceremony. “Bowley’s story has remained forgotten until now, but through the efforts of Kent Hermes, Steve Williams and Marilyn Hemingway, and their community of supporters, this city, the state of South Carolina, our nation and the world can now see Bowley’s important history and the embodiment of the legacy of Harriet Tubman.”
Also speaking during the dedication ceremony were state Sen. Ronnie Sabb; Mayor Barber; Georgetown County School Superintendent Dr. Randy Dozier; County Council member Lillie Jean Johnson; Vervatine Reid, president of the Georgetown Alumni Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; and Dr. Edwin Breeden, coordinator of the Historic Marker Program for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
Sabb spoke briefly about the importance of this occasion.
“Every once in a while, as individuals we have the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves and do something that lasts beyond our years,” Sabb said. “This is such a moment.”
Barber commended Williams, Hemingway and Hermes for being the city’s treasure hunters.
“As we begin to discover our unsung heroes here in the city of Georgetown, that is a blessing,” the mayor said. “That is what we want for our entire city, to unite and find our unsung heroes. As we work together, we will make a better Georgetown and we will be the focal point for this country.”
During the marker dedication ceremony, Barber read the proclamation, which shared many of Bowley’s experiences and accomplishments. In 1850, along with his mother and sister, Bowley was freed by Tubman through the Underground Railroad. Tubman then provided for him to receive a formal education in Philadelphia. After fighting in the Civil War against slavery, Bowley came to Georgetown with the Freemen’s Bureau in 1866 as an agent helping to negotiate legal contracts between planters and sharecroppers.
Bowley became a teacher shortly after that at the Rice Hope Plantation in Georgetown County, then served as the commissioner of Georgetown County schools. He was the 20th African-American to pass the South Carolina bar and the second black lawyer to appear in Georgetown county courts. Then, he was elected to the South Carolina State legislature.
In addition to those accomplishments, Bowley served as a trustee for University of South Carolina and became chairman of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee there, opening the door for other African-Americans to attend this college. He also founded the Georgetown Planet newspaper and was appointed probate judge in Georgetown County.
The Bowley-Tubman connection is now an important part of Georgetown’s rich history, Dozier said.
“When we look at the remarkable lives of these two individuals, they represent the best of humanity regarding their struggle for personal freedom, equality, the right for a free education for all, social justice and the right to run for office and serve in political office,” the school superintendent said. “All of these things we sometimes take for granted but because of their efforts, this world is a better place today. I’d like to remind you that with all the things going on today, there is plenty of work to be done.”
Dozier added that Tubman’s words –– “Don’t ever stop, keep going!” –– still ring true today.
“We should not be complacent, especially during these turbulent times,” he said. “We should strive to improve ourselves and better our communities.”
Johnson, who represents parts of the city of Georgetown in District 4, said James Bowley and Harriet Tubman are now firmly part of Georgetown’s African-American history.
“We are so grateful for the team that got together to make sure that this home will be recognized and acknowledged the world over,” Johnson said. “I’m happy that one more brick is being placed on the wall of African-American history in Georgetown County and hopefully it will continue and not end here.”
Reid said the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was honored to help with this “awesome historical project.” The local chapter helped financially to secure the marker, and Reid said they have helped erect seven others in Georgetown County.
“Harriet Tubman was a bold, brave, big-hearted woman and an angel of mercy, reaching out as a shepherd for women, men and children to save them, to bring them to safety,” she said. “We thank God for the visionaries.”
— By Clayton Stairs, Tourism Manager for Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce