513 North Adams Street
Like Maggie Walker, Rosa Bowser was a teacher and a tireless organizer.
Rosa L. Dixon Bowser, educator and civic leader, played a key role in implementing reforms that affected Virginia’s African Americans. Bowser was most likely born enslaved. After the American Civil War, she moved to Richmond with her family and enrolled in public school, where she showed remarkable intelligence. She is listed in the first graduating class of the Richmond Colored Normal School. As Richmond’s first colored teacher, she taught at Navy Hill School until she married in 1878. She returned in 1884, and taught at Baker School for 39 years.
Although Bowser did not seek an active role in public affairs, in August 1895 she founded and became the first president of the Richmond Woman’s League. By July 1896 she had led the league in raising $690 to pay the legal bills of three black Lunenburg County women who were appealing murder convictions, two of them death sentences.
In 1912, working with Mary Church Terrell and Maggie Walker, Bowser attempted to aid a young girl sentenced to be electrocuted for murder. Their combined efforts included a direct appeal to the governor of Virginia to reopen the case and commute the sentence. Despite the backing of the National Association of Colored Women, the girl was executed. Bowser and the association also publicly opposed lynching and racial segregation and supported universal woman suffrage.
Bowser became involved in other social causes and supported the founding and funding of organizations for treatment of tuberculosis, improved medical facilities, and medical insurance. As a result of an alliance she forged, the Federated Insurance League joined with the Woman’s League to support a Richmond branch of the Virginia Colored Anti-Tuberculosis League.
The presidency of the association opened the door for Bowser to play major roles in other African American organizations, including the Hampton Negro Conferences and their successor, the Negro Organization Society. She chaired the conferences’ Committee on Domestic Science from 1899 to 1902. At the July 1897 conference Bowser made one of her most notable speeches, “Some of Our Needs,” and appealed to the conference to form girls’ meetings to teach ladylike qualities and to sponsor mothers’ clubs to advise young mothers on childrearing.
In response to her appeal, additional girls’ and mothers’ meetings were organized in scores of Virginia communities. Bowser also called for reforms in education, increased teacher salaries, and improved housing and education for wayward children. She joined with such influential black Virginians as Janie Porter Barrett and Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker to form the Woman’s Department of the Negro Reformatory Association of Virginia, which raised money for the development of the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls and the Virginia Manual Labor School for Colored Boys, both in Hanover County.
Her efforts on behalf of educators helped create Virginia’s first professional African American teacher’s association, and she later served as its president. The first branch of the Richmond public library to be opened for African Americans was named for Bowser in 1925. [WOD]
An enviable record of accomplishment. Richmond could use a big bronze statue of her too.
(Rosa Bowser House is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- [WOD] Women of distinction: remarkable in works and invincible in character. Scruggs, L. A. 1893.
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