Historical Markers
David Bustill Bowser Historical Marker
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David Bustill Bowser

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
481 N. 4th St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

Reproduction of  Regimental flag depicting African- American soldier bayoneting a fallen Confederate soldier.
"Sic semper tyrannis" Bowser.
During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and thousands more civilians who witnessed their parades, were familiar with the magnificent battle flags that David Bustill Bowser designed for eleven African-American regiments.

When they were first enlisted in the Union Army in June, 1863, some 11,000 black troops - who served under white officers in segregated units - trained at Camp William Penn in Elkins Park, just north of Philadelphia, on land belonging to Quaker abolitionist markerLucretia Mott. When opposition to the choice of Bowser as the artist to paint the flags developed within the Supervisory Committee of the camp, Bowser persuaded John Forney, a powerful Republican Philadelphia politician and newspaper owner, to argue that "he is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent.
Oil on canvas of a 134 year old man, wearing layered clothing and a stocking hat.
Yarrow Mamount, by Charles Willson Peale, 1819.
He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house."

Today, we only know what seven of Bowser's flags looked like from photographs. Kept in storage after the war, the originals were sent to the military museum at West Point in 1906, and then thrown out in the 1940s. The seven whose images remain are extraordinarily powerful. The 127th and 3rd regiments marched carrying banners reading "We will prove ourselves men" and "Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves." Beneath these, black soldiers protect white women representing Columbia, the symbol of the republic. The 45th's banner, proclaiming "One Cause, One Country," shows a black soldier proudly holding an American flag in front of a bust of George Washington as black troops fight in the background. The 24th's banner shows a black soldier ascending a hill, his arms outstretched in prayer, beneath the words "Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace."

Most interesting is the 22nd Regiment's banner. It reads "Sic semper tyrannis" (thus always - that is, death - to tyrants). Ironically, this is the state motto of Virginia and the words John Wilkes Booth shouted at Ford's Theater after he shot President Lincoln. But in the image on the flag, we do not know whether the tyrant will suffer death. The choice is up to a black soldier who points a bayonet at the chest of a Confederate who has allowed his flag to fall and who is tossing aside his sword. The fate of a prostrate South, Bowser is implying, is in the hands of African Americans.

Bowser's works were the first widely viewed, positive images of African Americans painted by an African American, even though he was never granted the dignity of being an artist. Most images of black men in nineteenth-century America portrayed them as "Sambo" or "Jim Crow" - lazy, violent, ostentatious if well off, and with exaggerated features that rendered them ugly. To be sure, there were exceptions, notably the kind, intelligent face on Charles Willson Peale's Yarrow Mamount. Painted in 1819, Peale enjoyed meeting and painting this man who claimed to be 134 years old and was still "healthy, active and full of fun."
Oil on Canvas portrait, head and shoulders, of John Brown wearing military clothing and sporting a long beard
Portrait of John Brown, by David Bustill Bowser,1865.

Although relatively unknown today, Bowser was a well-known member of Philadelphia's thriving African American community, the nation's most prominent in the mid-nineteenth century. The cousin of famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Bowser had studied art with his cousin Robert Douglass, Jr., an African-American pupil of Thomas Sully. When his cousin moved to Haiti in 1837, Bowser probably went west to work as a barber, a trade he began to practice in Philadelphia in 1842.

Once back in Philadelphia, Bowser soon resumed painting, executing banners for the Native American (Know Nothing) Party's parades, and completing a portrait of Jacob C. White, a rare, commissioned portrait of a mid-nineteenth-century black barber who had become a prominent real estate developer and black abolitionist. This portrait was the exception that proved the rule: few members of the African-American community had enough money to commission portraits; whites would not employ black artists, and educated whites did not believe African Americans capable of being "artists."

In Philadelphia, Bowser also joined in African-American politics, especially the 1848 drive to repeal the clause in the Pennsylvania constitution that prohibited blacks from voting. Ten years later, John Brown stayed at the Bowser house, a stop on the Underground Railroad, between his expeditions to Kansas and Harpers Ferry. At this time, Bowser painted a portrait of Brown and "The Firebell in the Night." His portrait of Abraham Lincoln copies the image on the post-Civil War five-dollar bill.

After the Civil War, Bowser became involved in black fraternal orders, rising to the position of secretary of the Grand and United Odd Fellows. He never again received a major commission, and devoted himself to designing costumes and banners for societies like this. Had it not been for his Civil War banners and a handful of paintings, the world would have no remembrance of this talented African-American artist. Like the symbols of womanhood, Liberty, the flag, and the eagle that he so powerfully connected with heroic black soldiers in his designs, Bowser realized that such symbols instilled pride and loyalty to a nation that desperately needed the help of African Americans to preserve it; African Americans who in turn desperately needed (but did not receive) recognition of their abilities and efforts in the face of prevailing stereotypes. That Bowser's flags were forgotten and ultimately destroyed is a sad, yet telling fate for a man who linked painting so eloquently to the cause of black freedom.
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