In the past month, the African American community has mourned the loss of two iconic figures: Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing actor best known for his role as John Shaft, and Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, Congress’ longest-serving Black staffer.
Richard Roundtree: A Legacy in Film and Activism
Richard Roundtree, a renowned Hollywood icon who captivated audiences as John Shaft in the 1971 “Shaft” film, passed away on October 24, 2023, at the age of 81. Despite battling pancreatic cancer, his death was not attributed to the disease. Roundtree was also a breast cancer survivor since 1993, using his platform to raise awareness about breast cancer in men.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree was an athlete and model before his acting career. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and starred in “The Great White Hope” off-Broadway. His breakthrough came with the role of John Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks. The film, celebrated for Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning music, introduced the African American action hero into mainstream cinema, a role previously reserved for white actors, as noted by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Roundtree’s portrayal of Shaft, described as “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt,” was a defining moment in Hollywood, showcasing a strong, unapologetic Black protagonist. This role led to a surge of films featuring strong Black leads and provided Roundtree with diverse acting opportunities. His filmography includes “CHiPs,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Chicago Fire,” among others.
In addition to his acting career, Roundtree was awarded a Peabody Award for his narration in the PBS documentary “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” His portrayal of Black masculinity combined toughness with wisdom, making him a revered figure in the film industry and beyond.
Herbert “Bertie” Bowman: A Life of Service and Achievement
Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, who rose from sweeping the Capitol steps to becoming a pivotal figure in the Senate, died on October 25, 2023, at the age of 92, due to complications from heart surgeries. Born into a family of sharecroppers in South Carolina, Bowman’s life trajectory changed after a conversation with Senator Burnet Maybank in 1944, as recounted in his autobiography “Step by Step.”
Bowman’s career in Washington, D.C., spanned over six decades, witnessing key events like Brown v. Board of Education, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal. He began as a janitor and worked his way up to becoming a clerk and later a hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Bowman’s remarkable journey also included roles as a cook, shoe-shiner, and a volunteer at the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union.
His work with notable figures like President Barack Obama and his friendship with Bill Clinton, who wrote the foreword to Bowman’s autobiography, highlighted his influence. Clinton described Bowman as someone who, though not often in the newspapers, worked tirelessly behind the scenes, “folks like Bertie don’t make the newspapers, and the American people usually will never know their names, but they work hard every day to get done all the things the people in the papers get credit for,” Clinton wrote. Bowman’s dedication to public service was further recognized by the federal credit union, which named its new headquarters after him and designated him as an emeritus board member.
Remembering Two Pioneers
Richard Roundtree and Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, though from different professional backgrounds, left indelible marks in their respective fields, with their impacts resonating far beyond their immediate spheres. Roundtree, through his portrayal of John Shaft, not only revolutionized the landscape of Hollywood but also redefined the portrayal of African American masculinity in mainstream media. His character, a suave and assertive African American detective, challenged the traditional, often stereotypical roles allotted to Black actors, paving the way for more nuanced and powerful representations. This shift in Hollywood’s narrative was not just a cinematic milestone but also a cultural one, influencing perceptions and inspiring a generation to see themselves in roles of power and influence. Roundtree’s advocacy for breast cancer awareness, particularly among men, further cemented his role as a beacon of resilience and a source of inspiration, transcending the boundaries of film into real-world activism.
Herbert “Bertie” Bowman, on the other hand, embodied the essence of perseverance and determination in the political sphere. His journey from a janitorial position to a significant role in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee speaks volumes of his commitment to public service and the breaking of racial barriers in the corridors of power. Bowman’s story is a testament to the potential for change within the political system and serves as an inspiring narrative for many African Americans striving for representation and voice in government. The intersection of their legacies lies in their shared commitment to challenging and changing the status quo. Roundtree and Bowman both navigated industries historically dominated by white individuals and, through their respective roles, carved out spaces for African Americans. They not only opened doors in Hollywood and Capitol Hill but also left behind a legacy of resilience and trailblazing that continues to inspire and empower future generations across multiple industries.