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The Patriarch of Charles City County

By Fred Anderson

Richard M. Bowman.

Richard M. Bowman of Charles City County, Virginia, was a walking encyclopedia of family lore, local history and Virginia’s past. He researched his family back to the 1780s and could give the names and dates of long-age ancestors off the top of his head. When he once was asked if he had a photographic mind, he would only admit to possessing “instant recall.”

He caught the history bug from his fifth-grade teacher. “The teacher spoke of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and I learned about Alexander the Great and that man who carried the herd of elephants over the Alps – Hannibal,” remembered Bowman. “I learned about the Roman conquests. I learned how to track from the ancient days to the rest of the road where we are residing.”

Bowman also absorbed much of his historical knowledge from a close relationship with his beloved grandmother, Nancy Wyatt Adkins Bowman. Born in 1856, she lived through a remarkable slice of Southern history from slave days to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision which ultimately ended school segregation. She died in 1954 so she never actually witnessed integration.

When in her seventies, she began sharing history with her grandson. He remembered that she saw the smoke billowing up from the conflagration when Richmond burned in 1865. She would tell about the Union troops that marched through Charles City County on their way to lay siege on Petersburg. She said that the children were told to lie down on the floor to keep from being hit by a bullet. When Richard Bowman would repeat the stories from his grandmother’s time, he would become living history himself.

“Mamma Nancy” also instilled in her grandson the best gift of all. She planted seeds which led to his eventual conversion. She talked of her own childhood in which she had never had the privilege of going to church yet she had heard someone say that they “knew Jesus.”

“As a child, in her mind she thought they were talking about an individual whom they actually knew,” explained her grandson. “The name stuck in her mind and at about age 12 she started to try to pray. She told me, ‘Son, I was in the woods gathering wood for cooking and I continued to call on that name of Jesus and in that woods that evening something spoke within and told me to go serve and I will go with you. I told every bush in the neighborhood, ‘Jesus, precious to my soul.’”

Bowman added: “I was just four years old then and she was about 77; but as a child, I was enthralled and I can remember tears streaming down her face as she related her experience, and she said, ‘Son, they baptized me in November of that year and there was a skim of ice over the pond.’”

Richard Bowman was age 22 when he accepted Christ. “Back in my mind was my grandmother’s testimony that there was someone who could put me on the right road. It was a life-changing experience for me. I needed someone other than my own intellect to guide me through this world.”

His grandmother would have found it a rich blessing if only she could have known what her grandson did with his life. Richard Bowman never left his home community of Charles City, that rural community between Richmond and Williamsburg. Of course he left every day for 35 years to commute the 41 miles to Yorktown where he worked for the U.S. Navy but he always came home to his wife, Marian, and their seven children.

In his community he became a leader. He served as a member and chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, becoming the first black to serve as chairman. He served as a county supervisor for 16 years, 1972-87. It has been acknowledged that Bowman helped bring the rural county into the modern age.

He found funding for the county’s first office building and hired its first administrator. He also was a founder of his county’s Center for Local History and served as president of its historical society. It is little wonder that some have thought of him as “the patriarch” of the county.

Little Elam Baptist Church
Little Elam Baptist Church

Besides history, Bowman was passionate about his church, Little Elam Baptist Church, which is located several long country miles off of historic Route 5. “On the third Sunday in September 1949, Little Elam granted me the right hand of fellowship,” said Bowman. In 1951 he became a deacon and served the church in numerous ways.

In 1974 Little Elam joined the Dover Baptist Association and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. In time, Bowman became the first African-American to serve as moderator of the Dover Association and he also represented the Dover as a member of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. He also served for several years on the executive committee of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.

Richard Bowman knew the back roads of his county. About ten years ago this columnist spent a day in Charles City County and Richard Bowman took him to visit Shirley Plantation and introduced him to the Carters, the family which has owned the historic plantation through the long centuries. He also showed the way to the birthplace site of Lott Cary, who was born a slave in Charles City County and, in time, joined the First Baptist Church of Richmond.

Cary helped constitute a church in Richmond which literally relocated to Monrovia, Liberia and is still in existence today. Cary became the governor of Liberia and the first missionary of any race or nation to the continent of Africa. Among African-American Baptists, the name of Lott Cary is synonymous with missions; indeed the Lott Cary Missionary Baptist Convention bears his name. Cary was one of the many stories which Richard Bowman liked to share.

Richard Bowman was a true gentleman – gentle in temperament and kind towards others. He died at age 86 on October 30, 2014. The church house of Little Elam was full as persons from all walks of life gathered to pay a final tribute and a heartfelt farewell to “the patriarch” of Charles City County.

Fred Anderson is the executive director emeritus of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.