Wanting out of the Jim Crow South, Dr. Arthur Bowman made a fateful decision. “I chose Marquette. Marquette chose me.”
When Dr. Arthur J. Bowman, Jr., Arts ’63, then a young man, left the small industrial town of Bessemer, Alabama, and headed north to attend Marquette University, his journey was one of more than miles. He was leaping into another world.
The year was 1958, and Bowman had grown up in the Jim Crow South. He was ready to leave that tough, racially charged environment. “The schools in Alabama were segregated at that time,” Bowman says. “I wanted to get out of that environment. I wanted to come north instead of applying to a traditional black school in the South. I was not a saint by any means, but I was very, very committed to Catholicism, and I wanted to go to a Catholic school. That’s why I chose Marquette.”
Earning a degree from Marquette in 1963 with a major in biology and minor in chemistry, Bowman eventually became an orthopedic surgeon. At 78, he is still practicing today in the Boston area. Generations back, Bowman’s family worked as sharecroppers in a rural area near Selma, Alabama. His grandfathers and father moved to Bessemer to work in the steel industry, where a regular income didn’t require good weather for crops.
Bowman graduated from Holy Family High School in nearby Birmingham. The students were black; the nuns and priests teaching them were white. “When I got ready to apply to colleges, Sister Veronica, who was the principal and my 12th- grade teacher, said that she wanted me to apply to Marquette, Holy Cross and Notre Dame,” Bowman remembers. “She didn’t want me to go to the state school, because I might lose my soul if I went to the state school,” he says with a chuckle.
Bowman was familiar with Notre Dame and Holy Cross because of their football teams. He said he didn’t know much about Marquette, but “the city of Milwaukee interested me. At that time, they had the Milwaukee Braves, and they had won a national championship, the World Series. Milwaukee for some reason fascinated me. I chose Marquette. Marquette chose me.”
Bowman experienced culture shock moving to a part of the country without explicit color barriers. “It took some getting used to, because I had never really socialized with white people. And here I was, thrown in this environment where there were only 13 black students on Marquette’s campus. To be thrown into that kind of environment was a little bit strange for me.”
Still, he felt accepted by his white classmates and felt very little racial prejudice, although many hadn’t had social interactions with African Americans. “It was an easy adjustment because everybody was so nice,” he says. “They were just different. They were good people. Some of my closest friends are those students that I met at Marquette, and they remain so. It was a wonderful experience in that way.”
When not able to get home for Thanksgiving, he was invited to classmates’ homes in Wisconsin towns such as Watertown and Stevens Point and in Illinois too. “They were very generous,” he recalls. Bowman said the biggest challenge he faced at Marquette stemmed from the lack of advanced courses available to him at his high school. This shortcoming left him at a disadvantage in subjects like mathematics and physics. “The nuns did a great job with us at Holy Family High School, but still, a lot of the students I encountered at Marquette had gone to good, good high schools, Jesuit high schools. They had an educational advantage over me, but with a little hard work and some struggle, I was able to get through.”
After Marquette, Bowman earned a degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville and realized his dream of becoming a physician in 1967, then moved to the Boston area for a residency in orthopedic surgery. He currently practices at South Shore Hospital, specializing in joint replacement and trauma care. He and his wife, Debra, have five adult children.
Bowman visited Marquette at least twice yearly when serving on the National Alumni Board, recruiting students from the Northeast. In 1977, when Marquette won the NCAA men’s basketball championship, he drove to Milwaukee with his wife and two young children “just to be in the city.” “I left Milwaukee with a very, very positive attitude, andIstilllovetheplace,”hesays.
Bowman will always be grateful for his Catholic faith and the priests and nuns who came to Alabama in the late 1930s and early 1940s to teach young African American children. “And I’m also very grateful to Marquette because Marquette gave me an opportunity, and I wouldn’t be here without having had that opportunity because the doors for advanced education in Alabama were pretty much closed to black people. And unless
I had had the influences that I just mentioned, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
— BY JEFF BENTOFF