by Marjorie George
In 2012, the Diocese of West Texas put forth the name of Artemisia Bowden to the Episcopal Church General Convention for inclusion on the church Calendar. The church Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM), which receives such names, declined to put it forward to the entire General Convention owing to the fact that the Calendar is crowded and the SCLM said it would not consider the addition of any names that year. No doubt Miss Bowden’s name will again be presented to General Convention when it meets next in 2015 in Salt Lake City.
In September of 1902, a young, well-groomed black woman boarded a train in Atlanta, Georgia, bound for San Antonio. In her purse she carried $32 traveling money that had been sent her by the Rt. Rev. James Steptoe Johnston, bishop of the Diocese of West Texas. She wore a one-half-inch-wide red ribbon on her left shoulder, as Johnston had instructed in his letter of invitation to her, so she could be recognized by those who would meet her train.
Bishop Johnston was a determined man, but so was the young woman, Miss Artemisia Bowden, who was coming to San Antonio to take over leadership of the fledgling St. Philip’s School. She would lead that school, sometimes singlehandedly, for the next 52 years, by which time it would become St. Philip’s Junior College, part of the Alamo Community College District in San Antonio.
St. Philip’s School had it roots in a sewing class for black girls begun in 1897. Held in the rectory of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a black congregation, the class was organized by Bishop Johnston and the ladies of the church. Meeting on Saturday evenings, it became known as the Saturday Evening Sewing Class. Johnston continued to envision an industrial school for black girls, “in which they will receive a good grammar school education, together with the knowledge of those domestic duties which would always procure for them desirable positions.”
He recruited Mrs. Alice Cowan and opened St. Philip’s School in March 1898. The class met in the front room of St. Philip’s rectory. Later that year, Johnston raised $2,200 for a piece of land and a school building which he named St. Philip’s Industrial School; 18 students were enrolled in September 1898.
By 1902, the school was a well-known institution in San Antonio but found itself without a principal. Johnston set out to look for a replacement and, during a visit to Brunswick, Georgia, he became impressed with the work of St. Athanasius School and Church and sought a product of that institution to carry on in San Antonio. He found such a person in Miss Artemisia Bowden, whose personal acquaintances described her as “a person of supreme confidence, one who felt she could overcome any obstacle.”
One of Bowden’s personal mottoes was “Learn to do something, and do it well.” She would face obstacles aplenty over the next 52 years as head of the little school that eventually became a junior college.
Bowden was determined, as she said in a report of the school in 1904, “to make good, true, pure women, because I believe the destiny of a people rests in the hands of its women . . . they are taught morality in the truest sense of the word. Our highest ambition is to send from our institution true, God-fearing women, who are not ashamed of the truth and whose characters are spotless.”
She anticipated success, never failure. “A person who has courage must be full of faith,” she said. “A goal is set for the purpose of achieving it.” But the school was continually plagued by financial problems, and by 1934 it was close to financial disaster.
In 1940 the diocesan council called for a corporation to have full control of the school. The churches of the diocese had decided to sever all ties with St. Philip’s School.
Even so, Artemisia Bowden continued on in full faith that the school could become a great educational institution. In 1927 she had succeeded in guiding the school to junior college status, and by 1942 she reached a successful outcome in a long campaign to have the school incorporated into the San Antonio Independent School District as a city-supported and publically-owned educational institution for black youth.
In 1945 St. Philip’s Junior College and San Antonio Junior College formed the San Antonio Union Junior College District under a newly-formed board of trustees. The name was later changed to the Alamo Community College District.
Dean Artemisia Bowden continued to lead the school until her retirement in 1954. Even then, at the age of 75, she determined to remain active. “I will not seek solitude,” she said, “for I believe the Master showed the way to a life of service. He constantly moved from village to village . . . thereby indicating the will of God can and should be achieved in an active society.”
She admitted, upon her retirement, that her journey had been over a “long and rugged trail.” There were times, she said, when she was near despair, “from which Providence rescued me.” But, she said, “Life has been a glorious opportunity to render service to make a contribution.”
Artemisia Bowden died in 1969 in San Antonio.
Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org