Education trailblazer honored with new Historical Marker

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, September 27, 2023

It was a moment to honor an education activist as the family of Florence Bowser, alongside city and school officials, came together to unveil a new historical marker at Florence Bowser Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 22. 

During the new FBES school’s construction in 2018, the previous roadside historical marker was removed. However, thanks to Bowser’s great-granddaughter Bonita Landy Gilchrist coordinating with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, she ensured to have the marker replaced. The ceremony saw attendance by Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, School Board Vice Chair Heather Howell of the Sleepy Hole borough, School Board Members Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck of the Nansemond borough, and Karen Jenkins of the Cypress borough, Suffolk City Council Member Leroy Bennett of the Cypress borough and both Former Del. Nadarius Clark and Del. Clinton Jenkins.

Born in Norfolk, Florence Brickhouse Bowser attended Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now known as Virginia State University, where she graduated in 1892. Bowser’s passion for education led her and the Sleepy Hole District School Improvement League to work with the Rosenwald Rural School Building Program. Through this partnership, Bowser ran various fundraisers to raise money and build Florence Graded School in 1920, which also served as the first Virginia-based Rosewald School built for African Americans in Suffolk. Bowser’s great-granddaughter and KLM Scholarship Foundation Founder Kimberly Martin spoke about her great-grandmother’s work and influence.

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“She started a school for African American children over 100 years ago. She started this school when there were no schools for the children to attend. So she was a trailblazer, she was a pioneer, but most of all, she was a visionary,” Martin said. “It’s just amazing how her legacy has survived all these years, and I’m so grateful to be part of the event today because I want to participate every chance I get to keep her name in the public’s eye because she did a good thing for African American kids, but not only African American kids. Today, she’s touching all races.”

Martin continued noting her partnership with Jewish Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington while expressing how the marker outlines her impactful work.

“Now imagine an African-American woman over 100 years ago with no internet, no phone. Imagine the obstacles and the challenges that she faced, and she overcame them all as a God-fearing woman, as a mother, as a spouse, a wife, and being a pillar in her community,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important today to recognize that work and basically let people know if she could do it back then, they can do great things today.” 

Opening the ceremony, Brooks-Buck expressed the importance of Bowser’s work to ensure education for Suffolk’s children.

“There is nothing in our history that makes us prouder of anyone than we are of her for what she did,” Brooks-Buck said. “Julius Rosenwald and several other people in this community put their resources together to help to educate the children in this community and we’re just excited about that.”

During the ceremony, Gilchrist reflected lovingly on her great-grandmother’s work.

“When I think of my ancestor Florence Bowser, my heart is filled with love and admiration,” Gilchrist said. “I’m grateful for her courage, resilience and all that she faced in racial diversity … We all have people in our families, in our lives, that have influenced our journey. I encourage you to honor and lift these people up also because the struggle is real and constant and in our lives. And we are our ancestors.”

During his speech, Gordon expressed 

“This school is such a special place,” Gordon said. “Dr. Taylor already has ambition of this school becoming a blue ribbon school, and I honestly believe it’s going to happen. From the outstanding support that we have from the KLM Foundation, from the bright and creative students, and this world-class facility. To me, that really surrounds everything that Suffolk Public Schools is all about, everything that Florence Bowser is all about.”

Lastly, Florence Bowser Elementary School Principal Dr. Shalise Taylor talked about how FBES continues to be committed to Bowser’s vision.

“I’m pleased to report that at the end of last school year, we increased that morale by 20%, retained over 90% of our staff, had 250 volunteers that supported our school and we are fully accredited,” she said with the applause of attendees. “I know this would not be possible without all of you. With your support, we will strive to make you all proud and to continue the mission and legacy of Florence Bowser.”