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When Charles Bowie arrived in Boston in the early 1880s, he came with high expectations for his future. He had left his parents and siblings in Maryland and traveled alone to New England seeking domestic work. His family had likely been enslaved by the prominent Bowie family which included Maryland’s thirty-fourth governor, Odin Bowie. The Bowies enslaved large numbers of people at their Bellefield, Fairview, and Mattaponi plantations in Prince George’s County between 1810 and 1865. Charles was raised at or near one of these properties.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, plantation owners in northern Maryland gradually abandoned tobacco farming and replaced it with corn and cereals. This diversification of agriculture meant that the needs of plantations changed, resulting in a varied workforce. Maryland’s enslavers sometimes manumitted people and hired them seasonally rather than paying for their care year-round and by the time Charles Bowie was born in 1860, plantation work was often done by paid Black and white workers alongside those who were enslaved. After the Civil War, many Black Marylanders looked beyond plantations to more specialized work. Black-led communities and schools were established in the early, hopeful days of Reconstruction. This was the environment in which Charles Bowie grew up, and the one he left when he came north to create a life in Boston.
By 1882 Charles was working at Boston’s Hotel Berwick, seemingly for a successful young theater stage reader named Gertrude Griswold. He was not there for long, however, and by 1885 he had found employment as an “inside man” at the home of a successful clothier named Charles N. Carter in the city’s Back Bay. (The term “inside man” implied a variety of tasks within one position, from janitorial to butlering.) Bowie worked in this capacity in several nearby houses over the next few years, including the large Beacon Street home of hemp merchant Richard Harding Weld.
It was from this address in 1888 that Bowie published an advertisement in the Boston Evening Transcript seeking his next position which read, “Situation wanted by a young colored man as first-class inside man in private family: best of city references; will go to the country. Apply for two days at 110 Dartmouth.” This advertisement may have been answered by wealthy widow Mary Hemenway, because shortly afterward Charles began working at her home on Beacon Hill where he would remain through her death in 1894. After Mary’s death, Charles stayed on at the Mount Vernon Street house and oversaw the staff while taking direction from her son-in-law, W.E.C. Eustis, who sent his instructions via correspondence from his home in Milton, Massachusetts.
Charles’s professional ascent was impressive, but his ambitions extended beyond domestic work. In the mid-1890s he and a group of his peers began to explore Black political work in Boston, forming the Black Democratic Ward 9 Club (later the Ward 11 Club) in 1895.
The sixteen founding members worked quickly to establish a presence in Boston and July of that year saw several announcements of their activities in local newspapers, including one in The Boston Globe stating that their objective would be “to perpetuate Democratic principles and to support Democratic nominees in state and municipal affairs,” and noting that “the members express themselves as being determined to do honest work for the advancement of the party, and have pledged themselves to do all in their power to elect Democratic nominees.” Over the next five years the club pushed back against Black political suppression, working to place their members in elected positions in Boston with limited success as the promise of Reconstruction faded into the Jim Crow era. Charles was nominated for the Massachusetts Common Council in 1896, although he didn’t win.
His pace didn’t slow, however, and in 1898 he was married to Swedish immigrant Pauline Eggemann by Reverend George C. Lorimer of Boston’s Tremont Temple. The couple’s interracial marriage was uncommon in 1890s Boston. However, Tremont Temple had one of the city’s oldest and largest integrated congregations and had long been a center for social activism, beginning with its early ties to the Underground Railroad and continuing as it hosted important abolitionist and suffragist speakers throughout the nineteenth century.
Although the Ward 9 Club seems to have disappeared by 1900, Charles and Pauline stayed in Massachusetts. By 1904 the couple had come to work for the Eustis family at their estate in Milton, where Pauline was a seamstress and Charles oversaw a large staff as butler. As majordomo of the house, Charles worked closely with W.E.C. Eustis to manage the day-to-day needs of the family and those who worked for them. His daily duties would have included arranging schedules and directing staff, monitoring and ordering supplies, serving the family in the house, and organizing the logistics of their frequent travel. While working in Milton the Bowies also purchased property of their own in nearby Dorchester, where they lived near several friends who had also worked for Mary Hemenway in the 1890s.
Although Charles remained in the employ of the Eustis family until his death in 1928, his story reached far beyond the Eustis Estate. As a founding member of the Ward 9 Club, his work challenging establishment politics in nineteenth-century Boston helped to write an early and unique chapter in the history of Black activism in New England.
Eleanor Martinez-Proctor is a research follow at Historic New England
Learn more about Charles Bowie and other staff at the Eustis Estate by taking the 2:00 guided tour.