In 1953, Dr. James Harold Bowles Sr. established Goochland County’s only medical practice at a country store at the confluence of Whitehall and Sandy Hook roads, where he would work nearly five decades.
In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of his own family doctor and mentor, Dr. Gilbert Arthur Blakey, the county’s first African-American physician. Dr. Bowles became the second African-American doctor in the county, and, for years, was the only African-American doctor living and practicing in Goochland until the advent of a Powhatan County physician who later established an office in the county, according to a son-in-law, William Quarles, husband of Ruth Quarles, who was a former assistant to her father.
“He saw what Dr. Blakey had done,” said Quarles. “He was sure impressed by how much [Dr. Blakey] helped people, and he wanted to do the same.”
Office visits were $1. House calls cost $2.
“He loved each and every one [of his patients]. They gave him what they had in order to seek the medical attention they needed — he didn’t ask for it. If someone couldn’t pay, [he let them pay in kind]. During the summer months, patients would bring him vegetables,” Quarles said. “He didn’t turn them away [if they couldn’t pay].”
Dr. Bowles died of cancer Jan. 17 at his Gum Spring home. He was 97.
Years after he retired in 2001, people still brought him apples they had picked in the mountains, as well as salad and sweet potatoes, as “they continued to embrace him in their gratitude for him helping them,” Quarles said.
Dr. Bowles’ day included office visits in the morning, followed by house calls, which took him to the counties of Goochland, Louisa, Fluvanna, Buckingham, Cumberland and Powhatan, as well as Farmville. He usually took a little nap and ate before he left. He had to be back for night office hours that started between 6:30 and 7 p.m.
As his children began to drive, they took turns chauffeuring their father to house calls so he could catch a little sleep along the way. At night, when it was hard to see on the country roads and it was easy to make a wrong turn, “the kids may have thought they were lost,” Quarles said, “but he had an uncanny way of waking up before they needed to make a turn. It was amazing.”
At a time when segregation informed politics and personal relationships, Dr. Bowles turned a blind eye to skin color and treated everyone, Quarles said.
“Education was his catalyst into civil rights,” Quarles said. “He loved education and thought it was the only way to survive.”
Dr. Bowles was a founding board member and former president of the Goochland branch of the NAACP.
In 1959, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors shut down that county’s schools rather than comply with a state mandate to integrate them. They remained closed for five years. During that time, Dr. Bowles worked to help Goochland residents understand their civil rights and to make sure that Goochland’s schools would not close.
He had been a board member of the two-room Second Union Rosenwald School, part of 5,000 schools, shops and teachers’ home built during the early 20th century with seed money from businessman Julius Rosenwald to help address underfunding of education for African-American students in the South. The board is attempting to restore the school.
In addition, “he worked with Oliver Hill and the NAACP on voter rights and removal of the poll tax,” Quarles said. “He housed two college students, one black and one white, in his home who went out to register voters.”
He was a founding member of the Goochland County Voters’ League and a former vice president of the Citizens Development Corp.
In 1972, Dr. Bowles became the first African-American to serve on the Goochland Board of Supervisors and would represent District 2 for 32 years. He also served on the county’s Planning Commission.
“He was always working to build bridges between segments of the community,” Quarles said.
Andrew Pryor, who also became a supervisor in 1972, called Dr. Bowles “as good a friend as ever I had” and noted that he was “as fair to everybody as he could be.”
“Regardless of whether he agreed with you or not, he treated you with respect,” Pryor said. “When you came before the board, it didn’t matter to him if you were black or white, rich or poor. You got treated the same by Dr. Bowles.”
Born June 12, 1921, Dr. Bowles was the sixth of seven children born to a sawmill worker’s family.
He grew up on “Pea Ridge” at Caledonia, one of the highest elevations in Goochland. His father died when he was 13 years old.
After graduating from Central High School in 1940, he attended Virginia Union University for two years and then interrupted his education to serve as a civil service employee in Pennsylvania and Hawaii from 1942 to 1944.
World War II was in full swing while he worked in Hawaii, where he joined the Army and served for two years. During this period, he married Aretha Melton in December 1945.
Dr. Bowles graduated from VUU in 1948, paying his way through by working at a sawmill, cleaning houses and as a school cook. His wife stayed behind in Goochland while he studied medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. He graduated in 1952 and served an internship before returning to Goochland.
In 1953, he established a family medicine practice at Tucker’s Store, at the intersection of Whitehall and Sandy Hook roads and about 40 yards down the road from his home. He later moved his practice to a downstairs office in his home in a family suburb off U.S. Route 250.
Active in his community, Dr. Bowles was a former Sunday school teacher and superintendent at Emmaus Baptist Church, where he also served on the seniors and hospital ministries. He was a member of Caledonia Lodge 240, Prince Hall Masons, and for a time served as Goochland’s medical examiner, a post his son later held.
Dr. Bowles was instrumental in founding the Goochland Recreation Center on state Route 522, an important community meeting place.
“He always sought to make sure he made everyone feel important,” Quarles recalled. “It wasn’t about him. He believed in listening twice as much as you speak and emphatically, enthusiastically admitting when you are wrong. He wanted to bring people up to the level where they would be good citizens — that was his life and what he believed in.”
His first wife died in 1990.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife, Jane J. Allen-Bowles; another daughter, Jacqueline Simmons, a nurse who worked for him for a time; a son, Dr. James H. Bowles Jr., who joined his father’s practice in the 1990s and took it over when his father retired; two stepsons, Jerry A. Allen Jr. of Temple, Texas, and James E. Allen of Richmond; a stepdaughter, Janine O. Allen-Jordan of Richmond; and nine grandchildren and four stepgrandchildren.
A celebration of life was held Jan. 26 at Goochland High School. A private service was held at Emmaus Baptist Church.