David Bustill Bowser (1820-1900)
David Bustill Bowser was a prominent, successful, and talented artist born in Philadelphia in 1820. David studied painting under his cousin, Robert Douglass, Jr, another well known African American painter of the 19th century. Early in his career, David earned money painting commissioned trade signs, emblems and banners for clients that surprisingly included hostile white groups, fraternal organizations, and the "No Nothing Party," a strongly anti-immigrant political movement.
David’s most famous mainstream works include portraits of President Abraham Lincoln and the radical abolitionist John Brown. However, David Bowser's most important legacy was his contribution in helping to lift the self-esteem of African Americans by projecting an innovative and positive image of African Americans in his artwork. As stated on his Pennsylvania historical marker “Bowser’s works were the first widely viewed, positive images of African Americans painted by an African American, even though he was never granted the dignity of being an artist.”
Significantly for African American’s and their participation in the Civil War, David Bowser painted the spectacular battle flags of the Colored troops who fought bravely during the U.S. Civil War. The flags that David painted for the Colored troops to carry into battle were radical and inspiring, as proudly affirmed on his historical marker: "The 127th and 3rd regiments marched carrying banners reading ‘We will prove ourselves men’ and ‘Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves’…The 24th’s banner shows a black soldier ascending a hill his arms outstretched in prayer, beneath the words ‘Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace.’ Most interesting is the 22nd Regiment’s banner. It reads “Sic semper tyrannis" (thus always – that is, death – to tyrants). Ironically, this is the state motto of Virginia and the words John Wilkes Booth shouted at Ford’s Theater after he shot President Lincoln. But in the image on the flag…the choice is up to a black soldier who points a bayonet at the chest of a Confederate who has allowed his flag to fall and who is tossing aside his sword. The fate of a prostrate South, Bowser is implying, is in the hands of African Americans.”
Tragically, West Point’s museum threw out David’s powerful Civil War flags during the 1940’s, but seven photographs of those extraordinary battle flags have been preserved and are currently kept by the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, donated by his great-granddaughter during the 1950’s.
Personally, like most members of his family, David Bowser was heavily involved with Philadelphia’s black society and cultural life, and served as the Secretary for The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a social and benevolent fraternity that provided funds for its sick and disabled members. The first black lodge of Odd Fellows in Pennsylvania was founded in 1843, but obtained its charter directly from the Manchester Unity in Great Britain because white American Odd Fellows did not accept African Americans.
David Bustill Bowser married Elizabeth Harriet Stevens Gray and the couple had a son named Raphael Bowser, and a daughter, Ida E. Bowser, who became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.
Back to the Bustill Family