Talk Made at Unveiling of Anthony Bowen’s Picture, March 2nd 1939 at Anthony Bowen School.
If a group of people had decided to take a trip through Prince George County, Maryland about 130 years ago in the month of October they would have seen large plantations on which many slaves were working. They were colored women and men who had to work form sun up to sun down without getting a cent for their labor. All they received was their food scant clothing, coarse food, as a general rule, and they lived in cabins or huts.
These people who were sight seeing would have had to travel in horse-drawn vehicles, in buggies or wagons, because there were no automobiles no air planes 130 years ago. There would have been no colored people in this group unless they were slaves, for at that time the majority of colored people in the United States were slaves and they were not allowed to go from place to place as they wished.
As these travelers passed the plantations they would have seen children working also, for there were no schools for colored children 130 years ago. The masters feared that if slaves learned to read and write and use their brains they would not be able to keep them. They would run away.
The travelers might have seen a mother with a baby in her arms. Her little baby boy was named Anthony Bowen. If anybody had told these travelers that they were looking at a slave baby who would grow to be such a fine man that some day a school building for colored children would be named for him in the National Capital, they would have laughed long and loud at such a ridiculous prophecy. They would have considered it a huge joke. People who were looking at William Bradley’s estate where Anthony Bowen was born knew there were laws against teaching slaves to read and write. And even if there had been no laws both custom and tradition were so strongly opposed to it, the chance of a slave learning to read and write was very slim. It would have been very hard, therefore, for these people to believe that little Anthony Bowen would ever be free and have a chance to make a fine man of himself even if he wanted to. And it would have been still harder for the travelers to believe that a public school for colored children would be named for him in the Capital of the United States, because there no public schools for colored children in Washington at that time either.
But Anthony Bowen was very fortunate indeed. His master’s daughter-in-law taught the boy to read. She doubtless saw he had fine mind and was eager to train it, so she refused to allow him to remain in ignorance. Fortune smiled on young Anthony Bowen in another way. For he became free when he was only seventeen years old, then he came to married Washington and settled in the southwest section of the city. He sent his children to a private school conducted by one of his friends, Enoch Ambush. One of his sons, Dr James L.N. Bowen, was among the first men who graduated from the Howard University School of Medicine.
After Anthony Bowen became free he worked hard to help those of his race less fortunately situated than himself. He assisted many slaves to escape. He converted his house into a sort of Underground Railroad. You know what that means, I am sure. It was a place where slaves who had run away were concealed until it was safe for them to continue their journey to freedom. Anthony Bowed, it is said, built a garret in his house especially for these run-away slaves.
He was one of the first colored men to be employed by the United States Government, and was finally promoted to a clerkship in the United States Patent Office. He was interested in everything which promoted the welfare of his race. He made it possible for free colored people to hold meetings nearly twenty five years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
He joined the Wesley Church, became a trustee and later on its treasurer. Then he organized the Wesley Zion Sunday School and became its secretary and superintendent. Later on he established the Sunday Evening School in what was known as the “Island”, with the aid of five friends. Mr. Bowen was the founder and first president of the Young Men’s Christian Association. He established the St. Paul A.M.E. Church in which a school for slaves, known as contrabands, was held and was ordained as elder in the A.M.E. Church three years before the slaves were freed.
In order to encourage colored people to own their own homes he and some friends formed a Building Association. Two years after the emancipation in the District of Columbia Mr. Bowen became interested in political affairs and conducted himself so honestly and honorably as a leader of his ward that he was respected by all who knew him.
But Anthony Bowen rendered his race a service in this city the value of which can be estimated neither in words nor in any terms which it is possible for human beings to use. It was largely through his efforts that free schools for colored children were established here. He knew that every colored man in the District of Columbia was taxed five dollars per head, but there were no free schools for colored children. He made up his mind that he would do everything in his power to right this grievous wrong. Therefore, he carried a petition to the Mayor of the City, a part of which reads as follows: “Whereas the people of color are taxed, there is no provision made for them as far as education is concerned.”
So earnest and persistent was he in urging that free schools for colored children be opened the Common Council acted favorably upon his petition. July 11, 1862 must surely have been a red latter day in Anthony Bowen’s life for it was on that day Congress passed an Act providing for the education of the colored children of the District of Columbia. But, alas, there was so little money, and there were so many huge obstacles to overcome the children had to wait two long years before the first free school for them was opened. and even after the first school was opened three years passed before Congress appropriated money for building the first free public school for colored children. This was located in the southwest section of Washington, in 1867.
And now as the portrait of Anthony Bowen for whom this school is named is unveiled, we shall see the likeness of a man who truly a benefactor of his race. We shall look upon the picture of a man who tried to promote the welfare of his race by providing for the education of our children, by urging adults to be industrious, showing them how to make and spend their money and inspiring them to lead decent, clean, upright lives by setting them a fine example himself. I hope sincerely and pray earnestly that the boys and girls within the sound of my voice will resolve right here and now to improve their opportunities to acquire an education, Not to fritter away their precious time in their youth, I hope they will resolve to lead an upright life and become such a useful, model citizen as was Anthony Bowen, the man for whom this school is named.
Terrell, Mary Church. “Talk Made at Unveiling of Anthony Bowen’s Picture.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 2 March 1939. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss425490481.