Making money and doing good: The story of an African American power couple from the 1800s
Artists have long been major players in American philanthropy. If that surprises you to learn, you might be further surprised to learn that two African American artists were among Philadelphia's leading philanthropists in the 1800s, in a society opposed to their full inclusion in American life. Meet Lizzie and David Bustill Bowser of Philadelphia—an artistic, entrepreneurial, philanthropic African American couple. Skilled businesspeople, the Bowsers made money by producing goods for the voluntary associations that flourished in the 1800s and that have been celebrated as undergirding democracy. Committed philanthropists, they gave their time, talent, and treasure to efforts to achieve full citizenship for a community that had been excluded from American democracy's promise.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Harriet Stevens Gray Bowser (1834-1908), a seamstress, and painter David Bustill Bowser (1820–1900) were prominent members of their community. David hailed from one of Philadelphia's leading black families with a long history of organizational leadership. In their own day, the couple and other relatives belonged to Philadelphia's vibrant community of African American artists and artisans. Free people, the Bowsers nonetheless lived in a world shaped by slavery. Free African Americans faced risks such as kidnapping by slave-traders and subsequent enslavement, and the bondage of most fellow African Americans made antislavery activism an urgent priority.
The Bowsers made livelihoods from the era's thriving voluntary organizational culture. Between the 1840s and 1860s, David had a profitable business painting banners, uniform hats, equipment, signs, and more for volunteer fire companies and fire insurance businesses, along with other organizations. Some business came from groups, such as the Know-Nothing Party, that were likely politically unpalatable to him. Other business reflected the organizational and fundraising prowess of the African American associational world, such as the banner ordered during the Civil War by the Contraband Relief Association (CRA) of Washington, D.C. The African American women's group aiding wartime black refugees commissioned him to make a regimental banner for the newly established 1st U.S. Colored Infantry. Led by Elizabeth Keckley, formerly enslaved and a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln, the CRA raised money especially for the banner, rather than tap into relief funds.
The establishment of a paid municipal fire department in Philadelphia at the beginning of the 1870s meant the volunteer fire companies that had been a mainstay of Bowser's business were no longer a source of work. The Bowsers instead shifted their enterprise to producing and selling fraternal regalia, such as the collars made by Lizzie.
Besides being business savvy, the Bowsers were deeply engaged in civic life. Both were dedicated activists and philanthropists. In a country largely hostile to African Americans, they risked scorn and violence by fighting for black freedom and equality. David's advocacy included protesting a proposal in 1848 to allow African Americans to only visit a Philadelphia art exhibition during a segregated time. In 1863, during the Civil War, he publicly led an effort, controversial among many whites, to recruit black troops to take up arms for the Union. As a member of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, founded in 1864, he helped spearhead a successful effort to challenge segregation on Pennsylvania's streetcars.
David and Lizzie both belonged to fraternal groups, brotherhoods and sisterhoods that offer mutual aid. He was a member of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, while she belonged to its female parallel order, the Household of Ruth. Fraternal groups appealed to so many Americans, black and white, in the mid-to-late 1800s because they offered community, cultural identity, and social insurance benefits. They also provided leadership and entrepreneurial opportunities—opportunities the Bowsers seized.
The couple's associational activity included working to advance the welfare of African Americans. As a member of the Ladies' Union Association of Philadelphia, a charity established by free African American women during the Civil War, Lizzie played a leading role in raising money to care for black soldiers and then freedpeople. David, like other artists of the day, also used his talents to help fundraising efforts, with Lizzie selling several paintings donated by her husband at a fair to benefit freedpeople. (For many artists, giving or exhibiting works to benefit charities also helped them burnish their reputations.) David's philanthropy also included leading an effort to aid African American victims denied assistance from white-led relief efforts during a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans.
The Bowsers appreciated voluntary organizations as businesspeople and as supporters. Philanthropy is a defining tradition in American life, and committed to promoting the American ideal of equality, the Bowsers helped to define it.
Amanda Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life. The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.