The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) mourns the passing of Pearl Bowser. Born Pearl Johnson June 25, 1931, in Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York, and named after her mother, Bowser pursued an education at Brooklyn College, majoring in biology. She furthered her studies at New York University, where she obtained a certificate in photography.
In 1955, she married LeRoy Bowser. By the mid-1960s, both were deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. While LeRoy collaborated with Brooklyn CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and was instrumental in the early days of HeadStart, Bowser joined forces with fellow filmmakers and activists, documenting African American culture with the goal of sharing these films in educational institutions. A culinary enthusiast, she wrote about Southern cuisine for Tuesday Magazine, leading to her co-authoring the groundbreaking cookbook A Pinch Of Soul with Joan Eckstein in 1970.
From her early days as a self-described “Girl Friday” to Ricky Leacock at Filmmakers, Inc. in the 1960s, to assisting producers like Charles Hobson on trailblazing African American TV news programs, to her role as theater director at Third World Newsreel and film programmer at the Jewish Museum, Bowser wore many hats. She was an indispensable part of New York’s Black film culture during the ’60s and ’70s, serving as a collaborator, producer, editor and promoter.
In the ’70s, Bowser championed the forgotten “race films” of the ’20s, especially those by Oscar Micheaux. Co-authoring books on Micheaux, including Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era and Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences, she zealously collected, preserved and showcased Micheaux’s works through collaborations with organizations like the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress. In 1994, she directed the acclaimed documentary Midnight Ramble, chronicling Black American cinema from 1910 to 1950.
Bowser’s archival endeavors spanned a vast spectrum, from mainstream movies to lesser-known documentaries and TV clips. She co-founded Chamba Educational Film Services (later renamed as African Diaspora Images) with St. Clair Bourne, celebrating African American directors. Her archives offer a colorful depiction of Brooklyn, spotlighting talents like Kathleen Collins, William Greaves and Bowser herself. As she recalled in a 2001 interview with Alexandra Juhasz, “I have the feeling that many people who were part of that era and who were making films were driven by the need to document their struggle and to tell their own stories. The camera was simply a tool, perhaps even a weapon, in the struggle.”
In 2012, Bowser’s rich collection found a home at NMAAHC. This treasure trove of 16 mm films, videos, oral histories, photography and ephemera stands as a testament to African American cinema’s profound heritage and Bowser’s unwavering commitment to preserving it.
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