From Ohio History Central
John R. Bowles was chaplain of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War and, perhaps, was the first African-American public school teacher in Ohio.
Bowles was born on June 13, 1826, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Little is known of his youth. By 1848, he had relocated to Ross County, Ohio, where he married Sarah Bryant. Bowles found employment as a schoolteacher in Chillicothe, Ohio. Before the Civil War, Bowles also served as minister of Chillicothe's First Anti-slavery Baptist Church. During his time as pastor, Bowles helped organize a renowned choir, which traveled across southern Ohio, staging performances.
With the Civil War's outbreak, Bowles became convinced that this conflict would lead to slavery's destruction. Bowles had already actively assisted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. With the admittance of African Americans as soldiers, Bowles enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in 1863. He remained with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment from 1863 until June 1865, serving as the unit's chaplain. Upon leaving the military, Bowles returned to Ohio, where he continued to minister to churches in Cincinnati and Xenia and to work as a public school teacher. It is believed that Bowles was the first African American to teach in an Ohio public school. Bowles died in Xenia in 1874.
Bowles illustrates the prejudice that existed in Ohio during the years before the American Civil War. Ohio was a state that did not allow slavery. Nevertheless, that did not mean that whites were open to granting African Americans equal rights. Free blacks found that it was difficult to get fair treatment, and they often formed their own communities and institutions away from whites. Despite facing racism, many African Americans, including Bowles, actively sought to improve their lives.