Even in his last days, the Rev. Leroy Bowman dominated the pulpit like a wiry old lion in his twice-monthly sermons at First Baptist Church in Annapolis.
When he died of cardiac arrest at age 94 at his home on Sunday, it was next to the manual typewriter he used to make revisions to the Sunday messages that preached racial justice and reconciliation. There was one in progress when he was found.
For 61 years, his stirring rhetoric and public service endeared him both to black residents, who called him "the daddy of the city," and whites, who deeply appreciated his efforts to keep the city calm during the turbulent civil rights period of the 1960s.
In the latter role, he worked closely with then-mayor Roger W. "Pip" Moyer to reach out to the black community in a city traditionally divided by race and wealth. Then as now, blacks represented roughly a third of the city's population, but at the time they were segregated from the whites, enjoying few rights and nearly no political or financial power.
In 1968, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Washington and Baltimore were gripped by race riots, Bowman and Moyer walked the streets together, speaking to young people and urging peace. Their efforts were credited with helping spare the city serious violence.
"He led an incredible life," Moyer said. "I hate the thought of losing him."
Yet Bowman was also willing to attack injustices when he saw them and played a key role in the city's desegregation. After a white-owned restaurant denied him service in the early 1960s, he denounced it in a fiery Sunday sermon, spurring blacks to begin picketing all of the city's segregated businesses. When the restaurant attempted to appease the picketers by opening a blacks-only eatery across the street, "we picketed that one, too," Bowman recalled in an interview before his death.
"You wonder why," Bowman said of segregation. "I'm a man, he's a man, what's the difference?"
He continued his civil rights work when he was appointed the first black commissioner of the Annapolis Housing Authority, where he pushed for desegregation of the city's public housing. A street named in his honor, Bowman Drive, is home to two of the city's public housing complexes.
He lived to see a day when blacks would wield political power in Annapolis. Three African Americans now sit on the nine-member City Council, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is the second-highest-ranking politician in the state. Bowman resolutely declined to take credit for any of this progress.
"I'm no saint," he said with some exasperation.
Bowman was born in 1909 in rural Virginia, where his grandfather was a Baptist deacon. He moved to Washington with his mother when he was a child and attended Dunbar High School, meeting his future wife, Julia Elizabeth Coates, along the way. They married in 1930; she died in 1990.
While he worked odd jobs, eventually landing at the Treasury Department, he pursued a diploma from the Washington Baptist Theological Seminary. He later worked as an assistant pastor at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church of Washington before coming to Annapolis in 1943.
The news of his death struck hardest at the Clay Street neighborhood near First Baptist in downtown Annapolis
" ' . . . And a mighty warrior has fallen!' " read the announcement board outside the trim brick church yesterday, quoting the message given parishioners after Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, died in 1546. "Farewell Reverend Bowman."
Jim Morris, a church member, said the wooden rafters of the church on West Washington Street resounded with tearful wailing Sunday as the news sank in.
"Every aspect of life in this community, he has had an impact on," Morris said. "Guys like him don't come along but once or twice in a lifetime."
Even those who did not regularly attend church recalled his presence. "It's like, he is Annapolis," said Brenda Brown, a Clay Street resident. "I know he's in a better place, no doubt about that."
"He was always there for you," said Elon Smith, another neighborhood resident. "He led you on the right road. There [could] be no better friend than him."
The church will hold a tribute to Bowman Thursday; a wake and a funeral will follow Friday morning, also at the church. The city has granted liberal leave Friday for employees who would like to attend the funeral.
Bowman never had children, but said he did not regret it. "I've got a church full of them," he said.