Born in South Carolina in 1916, she moved to New York City to live with an aunt during the Great Depression. By 1974, when she earned a bachelor’s degree from Fordham College at Lincoln Center, she was in her late 50s. She had served as executive secretary of the city’s Community Mental Health Board, and two years earlier, helped form and lead Black Citizens for Fair Media, a volunteer group that challenged broadcasters’ discriminatory employment practices and negative depictions of Black people.
“At first we thought broadcasters could do as they pleased. … Then we found out that ‘the airwaves belong to the people,’ and that phrase became our slogan and call to action,’” she once wrote.
They pressured major networks into changing their programming, employment, and training policies—and if they resisted, Bowen’s group filed challenges to the renewal of their broadcast license with the Federal Communications Commission until they relented. In the late 1980s, her group became the Foundation for Minority Interests in Media. Renamed the Emma Bowen Foundation following her death in 1996, it connects students of color with internships at leading media companies.
At Fordham, Emma Bowen’s spirit is reflected not only in the public service mission of WFUV but also in the students supporting Bronx farmers markets through the Center for Community Engaged Learning and in alumni like trustee Valerie Irick Rainford, FCRH ’86, and Patricia David, GABELLI ’81, recently honored by Inclusion magazine as “trailblazing leaders who wrote the playbook for implementing” diversity, equity, and inclusion values and practices in the workplace. Bowen’s life and legacy deserve to be better known.