James Bowman, a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and the first black assistant superintendent of schools in Des Moines, Iowa, died Monday at Canterbury Place in Lawrenceville.
Mr. Bowman, 91, the father of Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane, moved from Des Moines to Pittsburgh in September 2012.
Mr. Bowman broke through racial barriers throughout his life. He grew up in an era in which African-Americans could not teach in public schools in Des Moines but later rose to become assistant superintendent in that district, retiring in 1989 after 35 years in the district. He earned a doctorate from Drake University.
“I think the things he accomplished were important, but the other thing was he was a gentleman, just a nice man, loved people and liked being with them. He was funny as heck. He was just a great father,” Ms. Lane said.
When Ms. Lane and her sister, Gail Bowman of Berea, Ky., were growing up, some people would walk up and tell their father he must wish he had a son.
“He would say, ‘Absolutely not. I love my girls.’ He never let us think race or gender made us less as people.”
Both of his daughters went into education. Ms. Bowman is director of the campus Christian center at Berea College.
Mr. Bowman occasionally attended Pittsburgh Public Schools events, including the swearing in of his daughter as superintendent in 2011.
“Of all the things I took him to, PPS events, the one he loved the most was dancing classrooms,” Ms. Lane said.
Before becoming an educator, Mr. Bowman was a fighter pilot, although he did not see combat.
Mr. Bowman was a student at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In recounting the time to the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress in 2010, Mr. Bowman said he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943 and joined the first fighter pilot program for African-Americans, being started in Tuskegee, Ala.
En route to basic training in the South, Mr. Bowman was relegated to his first “Jim Crow” segregated train car.
“And that sends quite a message to you that here you are going off to give your life, if you need to, for the people of your country, and you can’t do it with other people. You’ve got to do it just with black people. Well, that’s a painful experience to be told that you are subhuman, so to speak,” he told the history project.
After the war, Mr. Bowman finished college at Drake University and wanted to teach in Des Moines but was turned away in 1947, according to the history project interview.
The next year, Mr. Bowman went to Texas and taught at Wiley College in Marshall.
Ms. Lane said her father was teaching in Texas when her mother, Gloria, was ready to give birth to her.
Because Texas hospitals were segregated and lacked the best care, Ms. Lane’s parents drove to West Virginia, where Ms. Lane was born.
On a trip back to Des Moines to visit his ill mother, Mr. Bowman met a Des Moines school employee who enabled him to be hired to teach in the district.
Connie Cook, who retired two years ago as associate superintendent in Des Moines, was a middle school principal when Mr. Bowman was assistant superintendent.
“You could call him about anything. He was just so easy to talk to about any problems,” she said.
In addition to his two daughters, Mr. Bowman is survived by two grandchildren.
While funeral arrangements are incomplete, a memorial service is being planned for Friday at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines.
Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.