The superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau schools in Virginia, Ralza M. Manly, identified exemplary students and selected them for teacher training at the Richmond Normal and High School (after 1870 the Richmond Colored Normal School). Dixon became one of Manly's protégés and excelled in English, mathematics, music, and reading. She graduated with the second-highest marks in the class of 1872–1873 and remained in school for an additional year to study Greek, Latin, music, and teaching strategies.
Educator and Reformer
In 1872 Dixon passed the examination for teacher certification and began her teaching career. On September 4, 1879, she married James Herndon Bowser, a fellow teacher who had been the valedictorian in her class at the Richmond Colored Normal School. Soon after their marriage he left teaching and worked instead as a clerk in the Richmond post office until his death from consumption, or tuberculosis, on April 25, 1881. Their only child, Oswald Barrington Herndon Bowser, became a successful Richmond physician.
Bowser organized reading circles in order to give experienced teachers a forum for sharing information with new colleagues about their reading, their students, and their classroom strategies. The success of these groups led directly to the formation in 1887 of the Virginia Teachers' Reading Circle, the first professional African American educational association in the state. Bowser was president of the organization, in 1889 renamed the Virginia State Teachers Association, from 1890 to 1892. Over a period of more than thirty years she often taught at Peabody institutes, sessions of summer teaching courses at various black normal schools in Virginia.
Although Bowser did not seek an active role in public affairs, in August 1895 she founded and became the first president of the Richmond Woman's League. By July 1896 she had led the league in raising $690 to pay the legal bills of three black Lunenburg County women who were appealing murder convictions, two of them death sentences. Bowser became involved in other social causes and supported the founding and funding of organizations for treatment of tuberculosis, improved medical facilities, and medical insurance. As a result of an alliance she forged, the Federated Insurance League joined with the Woman's League to support a Richmond branch of the Virginia Colored Anti-Tuberculosis League.
In 1912, working with Mary Church Terrell and Maggie Walker, Bowser attempted to aid a young girl sentenced to be electrocuted for murder. Their combined efforts included a direct appeal to the governor of Virginia to reopen the case and commute the sentence. Despite the backing of the National Association of Colored Women, the girl was executed. Bowser and the association also publicly opposed lynching and racial segregation and supported universal woman suffrage. After ratification in August 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed voting rights for women, Bowser registered to vote in her Richmond precinct on September 2, the first day Virginia women were permitted to register.
Bowser continued her community work, teaching in the public schools until she retired in 1923. She taught Sunday school classes at First African Baptist Church for more than fifty years, until diabetes forced her to relinquish the work. In recognition of her many contributions to education, the first branch of the Richmond public library to be opened to African Americans was named for Bowser in 1925. A Richmond vocational training school for boys later bore her name. Bowser died of complications from diabetes on February 7, 1931, at her home in Richmond and was buried in East End Cemetery, which straddles the border of Henrico County and Richmond.
January 7, 1855 - Rosa L. Dixon is born in Amelia County, probably into slavery, the daughter of Henry Dixon, a carpenter, and Augusta A. Hawkins Dixon, a domestic servant.
1865 - The Dixon family moves to Richmond, where they join the First African Baptist Church, and where Rosa L. Dixon enrolls in the Richmond public schools.
1872 - Rosa L. Dixon passes the examination for teacher certification and begins her teaching career.
September 4, 1879 - Rosa L. Dixon marries James Herndon Bowser. Both are teachers who graduated from the Richmond Colored Normal School in Richmond.
April 25, 1881 - James Herndon Bowser dies of consumption, or tuberculosis. He is survived by his wife, Rosa L. Dixon Bowser, and his son, Oswald Barrington Herndon Bowser.
1887 - The Virginia Teachers' Reading Circle, the first professional African American educational association in the state, is founded. The organization is later renamed the Virginia State Teachers Association.
1889–1902 - Rosa L. Dixon Boswer chairs the Hampton Negro Conferences' Committee on Domestic Science.
1890–1892 - Rosa L. Dixon Bowser serves as president of the Virginia State Teachers Association.
August 1895 - Rosa L. Dixon Bowser founds the Richmond Woman's League and becomes the organization's first president.
July 1896 - As a member of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and as president of the Richmond Woman's League, Rosa L. Dixon Bowser participates in founding the National Association of Colored Women.
1908 - Janie Porter Barrett and Rosa L. Dixon Bowser help found the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. Barrett serves as president until 1932.
1923 - Rosa L. Dixon Bowser retires from teaching in public schools.
1925 - The first branch of the Richmond public library to be opened to African Americans is named for educator and civic leader Rosa L. Dixon Bowser.
February 7, 1931 - Rosa L. Dixon Bowser dies of complications from diabetes at her home in Richmond. She is later buried in Richmond's East End Cemetery.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Davis, V. A., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Rosa L. Dixon Bowser (1855–1931). (2020, February 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bowser_Rosa_L_Dixon_1855-1931.
- MLA Citation:
Davis, Veronica Alease and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Rosa L. Dixon Bowser (1855–1931)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 28 Feb. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 22, 2013 | Last modified: February 28, 2020
Contributed by Veronica Alease Davis and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.