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AT 83, HIS WORK STILL TOUCHES LIVES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The leading civil rights leader in Annapolis threw down his sign andwalked away from pickets surrounding a segregated restaurant on MainStreet.

On that day in 1960, Leroy Bowman saw something that jolted him -- the face of the restaurant owner, staring desperately back through the plate glass. No one had been able to get into the restaurant for weeks, ever since Bowman and his supporters began protesting.

"You're making this man's family go hungry so you can get your rights, and you call yourself a Christian?" Bowman asked himself.

Hedidn't walk in another picket line.

Thirty-one years later, Bowman, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, remains one of the strongest forces for civil rights in Annapolis. But as a minister, he says he cannot countenance hurting others, even for a good cause.

"Jesusis the key to the situation," Bowman says. "There's nothing he did that wouldn't work today, if we had the courage. Jesusjust treated everybody alike."

The minister pauses on the steps of his brick church. He is 83, graceful in a straw Panama hat and linen suit, and he has lived through many worlds.

Bowman has traveled from backwater Virginia to the halls of Congress, from a town too small to have its own church to the pastorate of one of the most influential black congregations in the state capital.

He has survived a triple heart bypass and returned to his pulpit with more fire than ever.

Says Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden, "He's probably touched more people's livesin Annapolis than any current minister. He's considered the dean of black ministers in Anne Arundel County."

As an activist, Bowman helped integrate public housing and helped launch civil rights demonstrations, such as the picketing of segregated restaurants, during the '60s.

In 1980, his church served as the focus for a protest called Tent City, in which Annapolitans camped out to dramatize the plight of poor people in the state. Last year, he worked to pass a bill that prohibits city clubs from discriminating on the basis of race, religion or sex.

Equally impressive to Annapolitans is Bowman himself, aman residents say is unequaled in genuine charity. "When I think of him, I always quote a passage from Isaiah about a good and just man, with eyes for the blind and feet for the lame," says Pip Moyer, mayorof Annapolis during much of the '60s. "He's one of the outstanding men I've known."

Bowman personifies graciousness as he ushers a visitor into his office at the West Washington Street church, murmuring deprecations about how it isn't much of an office. He's right: The walls are plain white; two brown vinyl chairs face each other across anugly orange carpet.

But as he settles himself into one of those chairs and starts to talk, soon only his voice and his lean, wrinkled face seem important.

Growing up on a small farm in Virginia, the youngster would siton the porch of his grandparents' home at night, listening to the whistle of trains, wishing he were on them.

The home was strongly religious, a stopping-place for the area's traveling minister when he came to town. "The preacher was my role model. He wasthe most interesting man I saw. He fit in with how I imagined Christ," says Bowman.

When the minister talked about having faith to overcome difficulties, his words "burned in my young heart," Bowman recalls. At age 8, he walked a sawdust trail to kneel at a mourner's bench and receive Christ. "This was old-time religion, and I wanted to besaved. As a Christian, church seemed to me kind of near to Jesus. That's the way it was."

Bowman later moved to Washington to live with his mother, finding himself a farm boy among urban students in the middle of a rough city.

A difficult adolescence was brightened by a girl Bowman met in the sixth grade. "Julia Elizabeth wasn't thinking about no boys, but there was a boy in her class thinking about her," he says, chuckling. "It was love at first sight." They married after high school.

The rest of Bowman's life didn't fall in place as easily . He was restless; he considered becoming a sailor; he worked as a houseman for a wealthy family; he studied at Baptist Theological Seminary in Washington but dropped out.

The pastor of his local church, who'd started as a skilled laborer and put himself through college, became Bowman's next mentor. Following his example, Bowman finished seminary to became the assistant minister at the church.

Aboutthe same time, he took the civil service exam and landed a job with the Department of Agriculture.

"My first day at work for the government, I thought I had clout," he recalls. "They gave me papers to deliver, and I cut across a lawn. A policeman yelled at me, and I said,'Don't bother me. I've got something to deliver for the government.'"

The officer made Bowman retrace his steps to avoid walking on the lawn.

But his pride got a boost when he moved to the Treasury Department as a personal assistant to Henry Morgenthau Jr., the third-most important man in the Kennedy cabinet.

Bowman has his feet up now, leaning back in his chair. "It was exciting for me. I met important people, like president Jack Kennedy and his father Joseph, who came to see my boss. I had special entree to the White House."

One day, attempting to take Morgenthau's Great Dane into the Treasury building, Bowman was stopped by a guard. When Morgenthau heard about the incident, he lined up all the security people, pointed to Bowman, andsaid, "This man represents me, and any door in this department, you let him in!"

Bowman retired from government work when Richard Nixon became president. He still dreams about those days, he says. But the preacher's best memories surround his Annapolis church.

He came to the church when First Baptist was without a pastor, and he was asked to substitute. After his first sermon, the deacons got together and offered Bowman $25 a month to preach. "I said, 'You got a pastor!' This was what I wanted all my life."

Forty years and several church buildings later, the congregation has grown from about 30 members to more than 500, and Bowman from a fledgling minister to president ofthe United Baptist State Convention of more than 100 churches.

The only stain on Bowman's record may be lingering questions about how much he knew of abuses that occurred within the Annapolis Housing Authority while he was a member of the board.

Bowman has insisted he knew nothing of the corruption going on under former Executive Director Arthur G. Strissel Jr., now serving 10 years for racketeering and bribery in a federal prison in Florida. Strissel was convicted of taking kickbacks from contractors in exchange for awarding them housing authority contracts during part of his 14-year tenure.

However, most Annapolitans who worked with Bowman through the years have only good things to say about him. John Chambers, who served as a city alderman from the late 1960s to the 1980s, calls Bowman a "people's person. He always seems to be in tune with the needs of people, and he's a man people seem togo to for the answers to problems."

Chambers, 63, recalls Bowman as a civil rights watchdog and a moral encouragementduring tough times. When Annapolis Mayor Gus Ackerland committed suicide in the mayor's office, Bowman was one of the first to go to the office and support Chambers as he took over as acting mayor.

"The two of us closed the office door and had prayer together," says Chambers. "He said he knew I could do the job. I'll never forget that."

Bowman remains stubbornly optimistic about everything, though his wife died last year and he also underwent a major heart operation.

"By God's grace I've been very busy," he says. "I had a good wife who helped me beyond a pile of words could tell."

Her support was especially valuable in the 1960s, when Bowman found himself in the middleof a civil rights protest. Deciding that black Annapolitans had suffered from segregated restaurants long enough, he approached the ownerof the Bus Terminal Restaurant, located where the Annapolis Loews Hotel is today.

"I talked to the manager about opening to blacks, but he was afraid he'd lose customers," Bowman says. "One day I just took the bull by the horns and sat down to be served."

They wouldn'tserve him. He wouldn't move. The proprietor started over the counterafter him. Bowman left. "I wasn't gonna do fisticuffs," he says. "But I was never so demeaned. This was a man, if he was sick I'd go to the hospital and pray for him. I was never so hurt in all my life."

He called the mayor's office but was told there was nothing the citycould do. The following Sunday, he told his parishioners, and a group started picketing "everything in sight."

In the following months, the pickets became economically devastating, Bowman says. He stopped picketing before the protests ended, but rejoiced when the segregation of Annapolis restaurants ended.

Bowman continues to feel torn over the best way to achieve justice. "What you gonna do?" he asks rhetorically. "You may say things you may not want to say to arrive at the goals you seek." At the same time, "the church's business is to follow Christ, not take political sides," he says.

Moyer remembers Bowman as one who exerted a calming influence on the city when the '60s protests heated up. "When hostilities were brewing on the streets,he'd come out and talk people out of it," Moyer says. "He'd tell them Annapolis was a good town, and there was a better way, and we wouldnot accept violence."

In a troubled world, Bowman continues to pin his hopes on God. "Mankind is lost," says the venerated minister, pacing up and down in his office in the rhythm of the pulpit. "Man doesn't know where he is. That's why we call Jesus the savior of mankind. Man comes up with all kinds of plan, but nothin' works for long. Jesus is the key."

Back and forth across the small office, long slowstrides. His voice drops to a whisper. "Jesus' humanity, that's whatdraws people to God. It's so simple. Children love Jesus. When you tell a child about Jesus, there's something there they respond to -- his perfection, his humanity, his simplicity."

He stops, suddenly, realizing he's in the preaching mode and smiles at himself. "I feel better when I'm in church than any place else, better in the pulpit.

"I don't know if it's sacrilegious when I say to my people -- I amnot going (to die). The Lord is going to have to put his knee on my chest for me to go. There's too much for me to do here."

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