The Bowers family story is one for the books—specifically, the history books or the archives of the Schomberg Center for Research. The rich details of their heritage are illustrated through the stories of elders, by official documentation, of a legacy they embrace by heart.
Mention of their forefather Nolyar Bowers (1867-1939) generates an unyielding respect and enthusiasm that pervades his living relatives. Retired minister Jasper R Brown Sr. states, “I am the patriarch of the Bowers. I am 80 and eight years old.” The current head of the family proceeds: “I think [Nolyar Bowers] is one of the greatest men of his time. I am excited to talk about my grandfather!”
The Bowers are a lively, successful group—preachers, teachers, politicians and professionals who happen to be gifted singers, musicians and zestful personalities. But the coolest trait of the descendants of Nolyar is the covenant they’ve kept to him every year since 1914. Demonstrated this past July 11, 2014, the Bowerses made history celebrating their 100th family reunion!
The probability that Mr. Bowers created the notion of the Black family reunion is high. Surely, this could be could be contended, or this could be true.
The legend goes like this: Andrew Hunter was born in Bascom, Florida. He was the son of an enslaved African and the plantation’s daughter, a White woman. Andrew’s mother was sent away while he was raised in the “big house” on the plantation. When the slave owner died, Andrew was left with the following according to the clerk of circuit court, Jackson County:
On October 6, 1884, an inventory of Andrew Hunter’s personal property recorded as 20 heads of cattle, a horse, 10 chickens, a hundred bushels of corn, 10 hogs, a sugar mill, 50 bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, a wagon, and household furnishings equaling $382.
Granted, a wealthy inheritance in the late 1800s.
Andrew married a woman named Mary and they had two daughters. One of the girls, Basha Hunter, married Edd Bowers, who was brought to Jackson County as an enslaved African descendent from Virginia. Edd and Basha had nine children, “One of those nine children was my great-grandfather, Nolyar Bowers,” says Edith Bowers Houston, who lives in Decatur, Georgia.
Sacrosanct to oral history, Nolyar slaughtered a cow for this occasion. And he asked his cousin Hettie Bowers to help prepare a meal for the family. His wife deceased, he gathered his nine children, his eight siblings and their spouses and children. He urged them to get all the education they could get, to work hard and be honest people. He gave the directive that this gathering was to become a tradition. Every second Saturday in July, he commanded, they would meet as a family. The lesson here: when organizing something sacred, when inspiring longevity, one must be specific.
The homestead, in Bascom, Florida, was the original location for the reunions. Edith was raised in Panama City about 100 miles from her family’s land. “My grandfather [John Roth Bowers] would say, ‘We’re going up-home!’ ” Nolyar’s great granddaughter remembers, “They would have the traditional fare—potato salad, fried chicken, poundcakes. Everybody would cook during those days. They’d have a big spread under a tree. Then it grew into having it in different places as the family migrated.”
Family has the power to provide security, instill confidence and teach the lessons that fuel the fire of character. Families make the memories that shape. At 76, Edith’s most illuminated reunion memory comes from being 8 years old. “When I was a little girl, my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Chester, who lived in Brooklyn, traveled to Florida to the reunion,” she remembers. “I’d never met him before. When I saw him, I thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen in my life.”
Mrs. Houston continues, “The family was at the beach. I got a bad sore on my knee. My uncle put some salve and a Band-Aid on it and he told me that I was the most beautiful girl in the world. Oh! My heart fluttered! I thought that was just wonderful.” She adds, “Then he told me to go to in the ocean, the saltwater would be good for my knee.”
Edith’s favorite recollection has depth, ideas to grow on: like her father and grandfather, the men in her family had the trait of caring about her well-being. The best looking man she’d seen in her young life was a relative and validated her own beauty. He also taught her that the ocean is healing. All lessons that live a long life.
The Bowers men intended to preserve their family by protecting them. Edith and her five siblings attended Florida A&M University. “I was raised in the segregated South. My Daddy and grandfather drove us back and forth for four years to make sure we weren’t harmed. I never rode a bus to school.”
John Roth Bowers, Nolyar’s son, was not short on cars or courage. While he loved his Cadillac and vintage car collection, he would not hesitate to drive someone out of town or give them bus money to escape the danger of being lynched. Edith recounts, “I grew up that way. My grandfather was the president of the NAACP [in Bay County]. He would drive people to the voting polls, and the grandchildren would drive his older cars to help people out in the community.”
Samuel Houston, Edith’s husband, says the Bowers family has always treated him as if he were a member by blood. “My wife and I met at Florida A& M University. We started dating in 1957.” When Samuel met Nolyar’s grandson, Walter Bowers, he encountered one of the coolest fathers ever. “I was very impressed. Believe it or not, her dad rode up from Panama City to Tallahassee on a motorcycle… to deliver a dress to his daughter so that we could go to a campus function together.”
The Jacksonville native goes on. “The Bowers are wonderful people—great singers and a religious family with a message that filters through. Going to their reunion is like going to a mini-convention. I think it’s remarkable how they maintain togetherness.”
Nolyar’s great-great-grandson, Michael Houston of Harlem, New York, has attended over 30 family reunions in his 40-something years of life. “I don’t miss many.” Michael believes that this time is significant, a prime opportunity to seek the stories from the elders. “You get together for these reunions, and you’re so much in the moment you forget to ask about the stories of when they were children and young adults. Sometimes you have to pull those stories out, because they were just living. But it’s important to get the details.”
Edith and Samuel’s youngest son, Michael, is a marketing executive who travels often, with ease. Aware of his family’s history, he does not take his existence for granted. “My grandfather [Walter Bowers] would ride on his motorcycle from Panama City to Newark, New Jersey to visit his cousin. I think about the Jim Crow south and how he couldn’t stop at a restaurant to get something to eat or he couldn’t stay at a hotel. And how long a journey that was. Even though he had money, it didn’t matter. He had to rely on family and friends.”
Through their stories, Michael has learned a profound lesson. “My ancestors teach me that there are so many challenges you’re going to face, but you have to move forward. And what feels like defeat is not failure. My great grandparents and grandparents didn’t have the opportunities we have, so we have to do all we can to make our ancestors proud.”
Twenty-one-year-old William Cross attends the family alma mater, FAMU. “The proudest moment for me was discovering that [the Bowers] have our own area within the archives at the Black Archives Research Center and Museum at my college,” he says. “Seeing my family [documented] at a nationally accredited African-American university makes me reflect about being a part of that legacy. I am honored and privileged.”
The aforementioned Reverend Jasper Brown, Sr. lives close to the homestead in Donalsonville, Georgia. The father of eight says, “I am the oldest living male, second generation from Nolyar Bowers.” Carving his own history to share, Jasper is one of the first Black men to be inducted into the United States Marine Corps and recently received the Congressional Gold Medal.
“The war was a mess,” he recalls. “President [Roosevelt] made the executive order that Negroes—they called them at that time—be allowed to enlist in the Marine Corps.” Black American men trained at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on a segregated area of the base called Montford Point.
“I was in that number from 1943-1949,” Brown continues. “We served in World War II, and let me say, we did our job well.” After 71 years, the United States recognized the men for bravery and service. “Out of 20,000 men, it was about 400 of us still living. The ceremony was something! I wish you could have seen it!”
The retired minister’s favorite family reunion memory was in Panama City, 1987. “We went to church that Sunday. It was the first time I preached for my family. I was scared to death! When the Lord lifted me, I got rid of all the jitters.” Collecting the energy of five generations of blood relatives, he says, “The Lord allowed me to be Jasper, and speak to my family. It was exciting!”
While this family has gathered all over the country, the Centennial Bowers Reunion was held this monumental year on the homestead in Bascom, as was the first in 1914. The 610 acres of land owned by Nolyar is still in the family to this day. Rev. Jasper says, “At this 100th reunion, I represent my grandfather! And for Sunday, when we close, I will be the preacher for my family at my grandfather’s home church. Can I get you to say amen?” Amen.
Perhaps Mr. Nolyar Bowers considered the math: that like his parents, he had nine children and they would have children. His nine siblings had children. Maybe he saw a nation. Living post-slavery, he may have planned that the forced separation of Black families he’d witnessed would not befall the Bowers clan. Or maybe be predicted the Great Migration, a socioeconomic movement of Black Americans from the South to states with city promise like New York, Illinois and California. Whatever the motivation, Noylar had a sacred request that bonds the Bowers family, 100 and counting.
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn't always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.