JESSIE BEATRICE BOWIE
Jessie Beatrice Bowie was my paternal grandmother. She was born in San Antonio, Texas, on January 11, 1909. She was the daughter of Elias Bowie, Sr.(1874-1970) and Hattie Bryant (1888-1944). Hattie had been born on the Texas Gulf Coast. After a brief 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.
Elias Bowie, 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 (1910-2005), 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. Jessie and her siblings grew up around Rockport and Corpus Christi, superintended by Hattie Bryant’s family, including her father Guy (1860-1918) and her mother Maria (“muh-RYE-yuh”; 1864-1931). Jessie finished the eighth grade and then became a domestic servant, like her mother, cooking and cleaning house for well-to-do white folks in Rockport and Corpus Christi. Indeed, Jessie’s family was virtually indentured to a particular white family in Rockport (that family still has substantial business dealings along the Gulf coast).
In 1930, Jessie met Quentin Vennis Harold Manson from Milam County, Texas. I have never known the circumstances of their meeting. It’s not clear why exactly Quentin was in the Corpus Christi area, although my dad believes that his father may have been there to attend school for some reason. Quentin was already an accomplished musician on the clarinet. Jessie and Quentin married in 1931 and my father was born in 1932.
In 1934, Jessie gave birth to twin boys. who unfortunately lived only a day. My father would be an only child. Whatever happened to Jessie and Quentin’s marriage, I suppose I will never know. Nearly everybody who was an adult in 1940 when my grandparents divorced is now deceased. My father says he recalls only having been in the courtroom when his mother was awarded custody of him.
This house had no street address. Few of the structures in Rockport had addresses until the 1950s or 1960s. I asked my father how the got their mail; he showed a 1947 telegram addressed simply to: “Mrs. Jessie Manson, Colored, Rockport, Texas.” He pointed to the word “colored,” and said, “They knew where to find her.”
Jessie eventually moved to Houston to work, and for awhile, her son was left in the care of family members in Rockport. He, too, soon moved to Houston. They were frequently back in Rockport, however, for various reasons. Jessie owned a house in Rockport that had belonged to her grandfather Guy Bryant. But since her son was barred by the segregation laws of the day from attending school in Rockport, Jessie Bowie refused to pay her property taxes. Her one-woman protest went on for decades; curiously enough, the authorities never took action against her. (Many years after my father had left Rockport for college and was a captain in the U.S. Army, Aransas County officials sent him his mother’s bill for back taxes!).
My grandmother, whom I called “Nana,” was, I suppose, the first family member other than my parents, that I met. She came to Jefferson City, Missouri, where I was born, soon after my birth, help my mother. Dad was still in college (Mom had graduated the year before). Then when my brother was born, Nana came again to help out. Dad was at that time in Army field training in Virginia. I don’t recall much about Nana in those days. But as I grew up, she was the relative, other than her brother Elias Bowie, Jr., that we saw the most.
In 1959, we lived in Frankfurt, Germany, where my father was stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base. He was a courier of top-secret documents between NATO capitals and other places. One Sunday, as we were getting home from Mass, the telephone rang, and it was someone from the base, which was not unusual. What was unusual was the conversation. The gist of it was, “Lieutenant, you’d better get over here ASAP! There’s some woman trying to enter the base . . . claims she’s your mother!”
Shocked, of course, Dad hurried off to the base, as my mother rolled her eyes. When Dad got there, indeed, it was Nana, who had just arrived unannounced in Germany aboard the first-ever commercial jet flight between New York and Frankfurt! This illustrated several things that would be constants with Nana.
First, she loved travel. Second, she often took off on somewhat of a spontaneous basis. Third, she had the irritating habit (to my mother at least) of showing up uninvited and unannounced. And finally, she always traveled in style! (Although it would remain a mystery to me how a domestic servant could afford all the high-flying she did). At the time she came to Germany, she had been living and working in White Plains, New York.
When later we moved to Albuquerque, Nana had moved to Pasadena, California. She would come to Albuquerque frequently on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Super Chief from Los Angeles. I’ve written before about how she fixed “chitterlings” for us one day–an exotic soul food of the rural South that (for good reason) my city-raised mother refused to prepare! But during her visits to Albuquerque, Nana learned to prepare unique New Mexican cuisine.
Jessie Bowie was married twice after she and my grandfather divorced. She was married to a man named Exa Givan ((1898-1968), who came from a tiny town in Ellis County, Texas, with the unlikely name of Italy. The first formal name I knew of hers was “Mrs. Jessie Givan.” She kept that name long after she and Mr. Givan, who I never met, had split up. In 1964, in Los Angeles, she wed George Tidwell (1914-1984), who I did meet on several occasions. “Uncle George,” as we called him, was a big teddy-bearish man who had little to say but always said it with a smile. He was a handyman who loved dogs. Nana and Uncle George had a German Shepard named King. They lived in a stylish home in Sierra Madre, California, a well-to-do enclave in the San Gabriel foothills where the black population was less that 1.2%. Again, I have no idea how they afforded it.
I’ve also written before about how Nana in the summer of 1962 took me and my sister to Texas on what I now realize was my first family history research trip. After the trip, I did my first piece of “real” writing!
I remember Nana as a somewhat temperamental person. She and my mother had the stereotypical mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship, unfortunately. She was also the first person I’d ever seen who had a full set of dentures, a fact that honestly weirded me out as a kid. Once in awhile she’d wander into breakfast without them and then say to me, “Be a good boy and go get your Nana’s teeth.” Ewwww! (Which explains my almost obsessive dental hygiene today).
In the spring of 1973, I was finishing my first year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. My mother called me one evening to say that Nana was very ill and that she’d be moving into our house in Monterey, California, while being treated at a cancer facility there. To that point in my life, there had been no serious illnesses in our family.
In late May, 1973, the doctors had done all that could be done for Nana. They sent her home to spend her final days with her son and grandchildren. I had a week off from the Academy before summer training commenced and I flew home to Monterey, filled with apprehension about seeing her. When we got to the house from the airport, Dad said, “Go on in and see your Nana. She’s been asking about you.” He motioned toward the door of what had been my youngest brother’s bedroom (He was now sharing the room that I once had shared with my other brother).
Nana was a mere shadow of her former self. She was horribly thin and her eyes were sunken into ther sockets. She could not move and was in constant pain. She could barely speak. She took my hand and said something I could not understand. I patted her hand gently.
But this is not really one of those sweet family history tales. No, not at all. It was terrifying to see her dying the ugliest of deaths. So this brave Air Force cadet, who had been through the hellish terrors of basic training with guns and grenade simulators and worse, this Air Force cadet and former altar boy fled the house and spent virtually every hour of every day for the rest of that week at the beach, where nobody was ugly and nobody was dying yet and where youth and beauty were quite nearly secular sacraments. It was the singularly worst act of self-indulgent cowardice a person could commit. I don’t even remember saying good-bye to her.
I returned to the Academy on June 3, 1973. On June 7, 1973, I began Air Force survival training which would eventually take me and my classmates on a trek of many days in the mountains. That same day, my grandmother, Jessie Beatrice Bowie, passed away at age 64 in Monterey, California. My commanding officer had been notified and he told me. He asked if I wanted leave to go back. My choice, he said. He said that I’d have to complete my survival training the following year. I told him I would stay in training.
My grandmother’s funeral was on June 11, 1973, in Pasadena, California.
Nana was buried at Rose Hill Memorial Park in Whittier, California. I have further disgraced myself by not having visited there–not once–in the last thirty-six years. This year, the 100th anniversary of her birth, I will go and ask her forgiveness.
January 10, 2009 Saturday at 5:35 pm