Elias Bowie (Jr.) was my father’s uncle. He was the the brother of my grandmother, Jessie Beatrice Bowie (1909-1973). Their mother was Hattie Bryant (1888-1944). Hattie had been born on the Texas Gulf Coast. After a marriage at age 15 and another relationship, she headed for San Antonio with her infant son Herman Walker (1906-2002). In San Antonio, Hattie found work as a laundress, which occupation fit the expectations for an uneducated black woman in the first decade of the twentieth century. Hattie also found Elias Bowie, Sr. (1874-1970).
Elias senior was a hotel porter who had come to San Antonio from Longview, Gregg County, in east Texas. Why he had moved to San Antonio is not known. Hattie and Elias senior may or may not have been married, but they had three children together. In addition to Jessie and Elias junior, there was a boy named J.C. who died about a year after birth. The 1910 census shows Elias senior and Hattie living apart.
At some point after J.C.’s birth, Hattie returned with her four children to the Gulf Coast. Elias junior and his siblings grew up around Corpus Christi and Rockport, Texas. In Rockport, Elias finished eighth grade and then engaged in the family business, viz., being basically indentured to a prominent white family (which remains a force in Rockport to this day). He drove and cooked for that family until the beginning of World War II. In 1937, he moved to Oakdale, Allen Parish, Louisiana, where he worked for a timber company. After time in Louisiana, he returned to Corpus Christi and ran a small taxicab company.
Military service took Elias to McClellan Field, California, near Sacramento. Eventually, he ended up in Oakland where he remained.
Elias Bowie was a quirky personality, but also an ambitious businessman. He took on small jobs to finance his dream of building a big chauffeur and transportation company in the San Francisco Bay area. He was a cook and a cabdriver. By the early 1950’s, he could afford a Cadillac and to open his transportation business.
Driving his Cadillac was Elias Bowie’s passion. He drove frequently between San Francisco and Reno to indulge his other passion–gambling. He was also a baseball fan–his team would be the Yankees before the Giants moved West. In 1951, he drove cross-country to see the Yankees play the Giants in the World Series. As the Series went six games, he made several transcontinental trips. On one of his World Series trips, Elias Bowie stooped i n Kansas City, where he met Ceola. She was from Mississippi, but was visiting her sister who lived in Kansas City. A while later, they were married.
Loving to drive as he did, Elias Bowie ran up against the law from time to time. Occasionally, his lead foot on the way back to San Francisco from Reno would cost him the entire yield of the otherwise successful trip! So it was natural that in 1955, he decided to enter a stock car race.
The NASCAR Grand National event was held on July 31, 1955, at Bay Meadows. The prize was $2400. Uncle Bowie drove his Cadillac. Many of the nation’s top stock car racers participated.
The race was extremely exciting for stock racing fans as it turned out to be a duel between the country’s No. 1 and No. 2 drivers, Tim Flock of Atlanta and Johnny Kieper of Portland, Oregon. Flock, driving a 1955 Chrysler 300, started in the pole position, but lost the lead to Kieper in his 1955 Oldsmobile after the 17th lap. Kieper was overtaken by Buck Baker on the 81st lap, but regained the lead on the 102nd lap. Kieper took the checkered flag, but a recheck of the matter showed that Flock had regained the lead very late in the race and he was declared the winner.
Uncle Bowie’ performance was described thusly by a local newspaper:
Unintentional comedy relief during the grim racing was provided by Elias Bowie of Oakland driving a 1955 Cadillac in his first stock car race. Bowie toured the course as a Sunday driver checking the scenery. He had the largest pit crew, topped by a lanky double-jointed chap in green fatigue uniform. He also had provided a full tank car of Mobiloil gas. In spite of (or because of) these precautions, Bowie completed the race.
San Mateo Times, August 1, 1955.
Elias Bowie thereby became the first African-American to drive in a NASCAR race.
In the 1960s, Elias Bowie began operating a gas station on Ellis Street in San Francisco. As an adjunct to this business, he also ran a small jitney service up and down Market Street in San Francisco. [During vacations in California, one of my jobs was to collect the 10 ? that the riders paid during morning and evening rush hours]. Eventually, he gave up the jitney for higher profit margin taxicabs. He named his cab company in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King Cab Co. did so well in San Francisco that Elias Bowie and a partner opened a branch of the company in San Jose. The San Jose operation was not as successful as the San Francisco division. When the partner pulled out unexpectedly, my parents took over the San Jose company, despite the fact that they had other, full-time jobs. They ran it for several years until suitable buyer was found.
Everyone, including his wife Ceola, referred to Elias Bowie as “Bowie.” Nobody ever used his first name. I don’t know why.
He favored Cadillacs his entire life as well as a fedora he was rarely seen without. Uncle Bowie had a grand house on Baker Street in San Francisco which we visited and stayed in when we came to San Francisco on vacations. But at some point, it became apparent that he and Ceola were getting a bit too old to maintain it as they would have wished.
Uncle Bowie was a warm, generous and jovial man. After my grandmother died and my father’s other aunts and uncles eventually did too, Uncle Bowie was an important link to my father’s family history on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Elias Bowie died on January 26, 2005, at the age of 94. Ceola Bowie died on August 29, 2008, also at age 94.
There is one more chapter to be written about he life of Elias Bowie. Unfortunately, a number of unfortunate circumstances prevent me from telling it now. But you’ll hear about it some day . . . and soon, I hope.
December 4, 2008 Thursday at 9:40 pm