On a frigid morning, prominent Chicago residents gathered at Apostolic Church of God to join N’DIGO Publisher Hermene Hartman as she said farewell to her mother, Mildred Frances Bowden. The funeral service was a fitting tribute to a woman who rose above tough circumstances to live a life that included friendships with some of Black Chicago’s most celebrated figures in politics, journalism, jazz and entertainment.
As temperatures dropped to the single digits outside, the large sanctuary at Apostolic Church of God remained warm with a powerful and heartfelt ceremony that brought together some of Chicago’s most esteemed religious figures, singers and individuals. Four days before Christmas, the service was a spirit-filled ceremony that began at 11 a.m. and honored Bowden’s rich life and contributions.
She died December 12 after celebrating 101 years. She would have turned 102 on April 8, 2023.
Loaded with flair and sophistication, Bowden was a popular figure among Black Chicago social circles. With WVON CEO Melody Spann Cooper and Operation Rainbow PUSH’s Rev. Janette Wilson serving as funeral coordinators, her service included an elaborate eight-page program that featured many pictures of Bowden, an elegant woman, in various stages of her illustrious life.
Some photos included Bowden with Hermene Hartman and Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of nine clergymen from throughout Chicago who spoke at Bowden’s funeral. In addition to Rev. Wilson, the clergy was represented by Reverends Ivory Nichols, Apostolic Church of God; William Hall, Pastor, St. James Community Church; Marvin Hunter, Pastor, Grace Memorial Church; Linda Oglesby of Unity of Oak Park; Fred Randall, Christ Universal Temple; Bishop Carlton Pearson, Azusa Founder; and Bishop Tavis L. Grant, Senior Pastor of Greater First Baptist Church. All spoke during the ceremony. Bishop Pearson delivered the eulogy, and Rev. Wilson gave the benediction.
While the service reflected Bowden’s love for God, it also honored her zest for life and all genres of music and Black culture. Santita Jackson, Rev. Jackson’s daughter, sang “You Will Never Walk Alone,” while Terisa Griffin sang “Come Sunday,” a song written by the late jazz legend and sung by Gospel great Mahalia Jackson.
Griffin also sang “The Greatest Love of All,” a song made popular by the late Whitney Houston. Connie Kinnison sang Frank Sinatra’s My Way before powerful tenor Roderick Dixon of the holiday musical “Too Hot to Handel” closed out the service with “There’s A Place for Us (Somewhere),” from the Oscar-winning musical West Side Story.
During the service, Hartman read a letter from her mother, and Augustus Cage read a poem. There were powerful tributes packed in the 75-minute service that concluded with Bowden’s burial at esteemed Oak Woods Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Chicago’s Black elite.
Mildred Frances Bowden was born to Helen Hester and William Bowden in Apex, North Carolina, on April 8, 1921. Her birth certificate identified her as a Mulatto. Mildred’s mother died at the early age of 19 from what many believe was the result of the 1921 pandemic, leaving Mildred in the care of her father.
Mr. Bowden brought Mildred to Chicago when she was only 18 months old; she was cared for by his friend, Ms. Carrie. Upon returning to North Carolina, Mr. Bowden died suddenly. Ms. Carrie who lived on the South Side was a thriving entrepreneur. She sold liquor to entertainers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Susie and Butter Beans, while raising her biological daughter Naomi, and young Mildred.
Paula [Mildred’s sister] and Mildred bonded for life. Ms. Carrie taught Mildred important social graces that she would carry with her throughout her life. When Mildred was only 11 years old, Ms. Carrie died. For Mildred, it was a period of uncertainty that left her nearly an orphan. She was determined not to become part of a government system for children, so she lived with friends of Ms. Carrie.
Despite her humble circumstances, Mildred excelled in her studies, especially in mathematics, and was on the honor roll at DuSable High School where her classmates included John H. Johnson, Nat King Cole, Dorothy Donegan, Redd Foxx, Eddie Harris, Dempsey Travis, Harold Washington and Timuel Black.
After Mildred’s first marriage ended in divorce, she became part of the management team at the famed Rhumboogie Café (343 E. 55th St.). There she rubbed shoulders with America’s emerging top Black talent, including Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Jordan and Count Basie.
The Rhumboogie had a brand new rhythm, and patrons were burning up the dance floor. It was one of the grandest openings, on April 17, 1942, that Chicago’s Black community had ever seen. Mildred told Black in an interview for his book Bridges of Memory, “I worked at the Rhumboogie from the day it opened to the day it closed.”
Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis and Charlie Glenn were the owners and knew how to make the good times roll! The night club was also the place where Mildred caught the eye of the man who would become the love of her life.
It was at the Rhumboogie where Mildred met her future husband, Herman Hartman. A highly successful businessman, he was the first Black Pepsi Cola distributor in America. As a manager at Rhumboogie, Mildred knew all the high rollers who frequented the club, except for Herman. It would be a chance encounter on a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and a $500 bribe paid to a mutual friend to get Mildred’s telephone number, which would seal her future.
They began a courtship that included trips to New York to see Louis fight, and Herman’s brother, famed jazz singer Johnny Hartman. Their union resulted in the birth of their only child, Hermene. When Hermene enrolled in college, Mildred began working as a supervisor at Cook County Hospital. She was a well-loved intake supervisor working in the general hospital and the pediatrics department until she retired.
Mildred may have stopped working, but she remained quite busy with a social calendar that included church, theater, concerts, and travel with friends. She was a member of the Red Hats and other social clubs.
Mildred’s best friend Ernestine Banger introduced her to the teachings of the late Rev. Johnnie Coleman at Christ Universal Temple, where she was an active member, serving on the Board and becoming a chief fundraiser.
Through various projects and initiatives, Mildred and her sister-friend Thelma Shirley assisted in raising over $2 million and helped make Christ Universal Temple the largest “New Thought” church in the country. Their projects included Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, “The Keys” and “The Seats.”
As Mildred matured, she became the matriarch of her family. Known as “Auntie” to Paula Jean and Charles Mazique, Bernice and Brother, Romona and Bartell, the family enjoyed picnics, trips to Riverview Amusement Park, barbecues and homemade ice cream. Mildred loved Christmas and celebrated the holiday as one of her favorite times of the year.
She leaves a legacy of entrepreneurship, leadership and enjoyment of life.
She is survived by her daughter, N’DIGO Publisher Hermene Hartman.