African American Studies


The following is a transcript of the Bronx African American History Project’s second interview with Mrs. Willie E.P. Bowman. Although she covers some of the same subjects in this interview with Dr. Purnell that she did in her first interview, she also delves more deeply into her work with the community as opposed to her career in social and correction work.

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.

In this interview, Bowman explains in detail her growing sense of disillusionment with the Catholic Church after moving to Williamsbridge. A devout Catholic for the entirety of her life until this point, Bowman became upset with the overt racism of the individuals who ran Our Lady of the Grace, a Catholic parish and school and Williamsbridge. Bowman points out that this increased racism came at a time when immigrants from the Caribbean first made their way into the neighborhood, which until that time had been primarily Italian. Her displeasure with the Church grew so large that Bowman left it completely, converting to Islam upon the advice of a friend.

Discussing her incursions into politics, Bowman explains that organization is in her blood, as her biological father served as the superintendent of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Bowman discusses her political actions mainly in the scope of two organizations, the NAACP and the Independent Voters Club, which she helped to found. She points to the influence of a Mr. George Sands as being integral to the success of the NAACP in the Northeast Bronx, saying that Sands was aggressive in asserting the principles of the Black Power movement, securing the success of black banks, and establishing a credit union for blacks in the area. Her own organization, the Independent Voters Club, attempted to aid the community with banking, housing, and voter registration campaigns. The IVC would also schedule meetings with politicians, lobbying for the needs of the community. As a result of her work, Bowman was appointed commissioner of the Voter Assistant Commission, and served as a Bronx representative to the Commission for 13 years.

Bowman ends the interview by recalling her social work, explaining that the work she did with those young men at Spofford Juvenile Facility meant more to her than any political work ever could.