How do you tell the story of someone who describes herself as a “diva/goddess”—especially when one of the first things she says is, “I can’t imagine anybody would be interested in my life,” in an apparent contradiction?
Let’s start the story of Cardriner (Car-dree-ner) Bowden in 1963, three years after the famous sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., an attempt to integrate public spaces. Bowden was a freshman at a historically black college, North Carolina A&T State University, where Jesse Jackson was also a student.
“One day I was told, ‘We’re going to integrate the theater today,’” she recalls. “I didn’t have anything to do that day, so I went. We stood at the back of the line, thinking if they started arresting people, we wouldn’t get arrested, and would have time to get out of there. They reversed the line, so we got arrested first. I was in jail for 11 days. It was actually a lot of fun. We were singing and dancing. Those not arrested were outside the fence. It didn’t really feel like jail.
“Of course, whenever I applied for a job, I had to list that I had been arrested. They look at you really funny. But then they’d ask about it, and once I explained, it became OK. It wasn’t held against me.”
Born and raised in Goldsboro, N.C., Bowden was an only child whose father died when she was just 6 weeks old. She was raised partially by her grandmother, but also lived for a time with an aunt in Washington, D.C.
“The school there was the biggest I’d ever seen,” Bowden says. “I’d come from a place where I used to know everybody. The family my mom worked for (in Goldsboro) was white, and they were very nice, but Goldsboro wasn’t the kind of place I wanted to be in. I remember there was a billboard on the highway that said, ‘The Grand Dragon of the KKK welcomes you to Wayne Country, North Carolina.’ … The black women were teachers or nurses or worked in the homes of white people. I couldn’t see graduating from college to go back there to live.”
After spending summers working in Washington, D.C., Bowden left North Carolina to move there after graduating from college with a degree in education in 1966.
“I didn’t really want to teach, so I became a secretary at the Veterans Administration,” Bowden says. “But I knew I really didn’t belong there. I decided to teach, and got a job in Clinton, Md., teaching typing, shorthand and business machines at the high school level. I was one of the only two African Americans they’d ever hired, but I was young and knew I could deal with what I would encounter in a white school. I remember that a child of the pilot of Air Force One attended that school!
“I actually had to rent a car to go to the interview, and before I could even get back to the sorority house, where I was staying, the principal had called to tell me he was hiring me. I told him I didn’t even have a car or the money to buy one, and he called me back to say he had talked to the teacher’s credit union and told them to approve a loan for me.”
Bowden pointed out that Clinton was the place where John Wilkes Booth went after shooting Abraham Lincoln. “It’s where Mary Surratt was hanged as Booth’s accomplice. The principal of the high school, during my first year teaching there, wouldn’t make me come to night meetings, because the Klan might be looking for me.”
After teaching for six years in Maryland, Bowden made her way to California in 1972 to get married.
“He was a guy from my hometown who had been in the military. After he was discharged, he wanted to stay in L.A., and I agreed to relocate,” he says. “I came out during Christmas break and took the exam administered by the Los Angeles Unified School District. I had already taken and scored high on the National Teacher Examination. When L.A. hired me, the first year, I started as a substitute teacher at a school in Watts. The other teachers were so impressed that at the end of that first year, they had a vacancy, and I was hired.
“They saw potential in me, and said I should go into administration. I never had any discipline problems in my classrooms, so I became dean of student counselors at Locke High School, but I needed a master’s degree to go into administration, so I enrolled at Loyola Marymount University. I’ve always learned that when you do good work, they reward you.”
Bowden went on to become an assistant principal; a coordinator for Angel Gate Academy working with at-risk middle school students; an operations administrator handling everything from complaining parents to difficult events like school shootings; and assistant director of violence prevention and intervention at the Board of Education offices.
Bowden, then divorced, decided to retire in 2007.
“I’d always loved the Palm Springs area,” she says. “When I was working, I’d come down in the summertime when hotel rates were cheap. I wanted to be in an active-adult community, and decided that Del Webb’s Sun City in Palm Desert fit the bill. It’s ironic that all the work I do here is actually away from Sun City.”
Bowden volunteered in the Eisenhower Medical Center boutique for six years; was a volunteer usher at McCallum Theater from 2008-2017, and serves on the board of the theater’s Muses and Patroness Circle; volunteers at Well in the Desert and is on the nonprofit’s board; advises Thermal high school students with their annual choreography festival; is vice-chair of the public safety commission at Sun City, helping residents by working with local police and fire departments to provide safety programs; and for six years was women’s fellowship chair at Friendship Church, organizing luncheons and obtaining speakers. Oh, and every year, she is Mrs. Santa Claus when Well in the Desert presents their Christmas meal with toys for the children.
“I see people who are homeless and struggling, and realize that could have been me,” Bowden says. “My mom instilled in me that I needed a solid education so I could always take care of myself. Everybody who comes through the shelter has lost a job, or been in a bad relationship, or someone died, and they become homeless. If I can say something to change how they feel about themselves, or help them see there can be a better future for them … listen, I worked hard and was fortunate. It’s not too late for anyone. You should never give up.”
I ask: How did she get such an unusual name? Bowden laughs. “I was the first grandchild on my mother’s side, and my mother told my grandma she could name me. Grandma then told one of her friends she could name me. I have no idea where the name came from or what it means, but I’ve certainly never met anyone else with that name.”
I’ve never met anyone else with the grit, charm, wit and dedication of Cardriner Bowden. She says she’s crazy, and laughs about her “mouth” and how it can get her into trouble—but she makes a difference, never shies away from confronting a wrong, and is fierce while always being kind and loving.
If that doesn’t describe a diva/goddess, what does?
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 9 to 10 a.m. on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.