SUFFOLK, Va. -- Kim Martin has always known she would have big shoes to fill.
Her life’s mission through her nonprofit KLM Scholarship Foundation is largely fueled by the legacy of her great grandmother Florence Bowser.
Martin says she is amazed by and extremely proud of the impact Bowser made on education in Virginia.
In 1920, the VSU graduate worked hard to get a school for African American students built in Suffolk with the help of two men who ran the Rosenwald School Project.
“She was able to partner with Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald who was a Jewish philanthropist who would go across the rural south to build schools for African American students. In 1920 they built The Florence Graded School,” Martin said.
Rosenwald was the owner and President of Sears, Roebuck & Company.
Washington was an educator and president of Tuskegee Institute.
Both knew the discrimination African Americans faced and how underfunded their schools were.
The Rosenwald Project donated matching funds and African American communities raised money, contributed materials and labor to make facilities like The Florence Graded school a reality.
Martin still has a brick from the original school site.
Sonja Ingram with Preservation Virginia says more than 5,000 schools like this were built across the South.
“During the program, a third of African American students in the South went to Rosenwald schools by the time of integration," Ingram explained. "There were a lot of African American schools at the time, but they were smaller. They just weren’t being funded like white schools were. Although they were supposed to, but they weren’t."
That is precisely why Mrs. Bowser worked so hard to get the school built.
“She was able to galvanize her community and raise funds that were needed in order to qualify for the Rosenwald matching funds. I mean, she didn’t have the internet. She didn’t have cell phones. She didn’t have a phone in her house," Martin said. "And who knows what the situation was in the rural south for the mail system.”
Martin says her great grandmother’s passion for education spurred her to have a love for the same.
She uses that drive to make an impact on students in Virginia each year through her KLM Scholarship Foundation.
To date, Martin’s nonprofit organization has distributed more than a half million dollars in book scholarships to students who attend Virginia colleges and universities.
Every time Martin reflects on where she is today with her nonprofit, thoughts of her beloved great grandmother are never far away.
“I think I get my drive from my great grandmother," Martin shared. "She worked hard, was diligent and organized. She is my motivation and my role model.”
She is thankful to this day that her great grandmother’s passion for education and legacy are being carried on.
Suffolk School Superintendent Dr. John Gordon, III says the new Bowser Elementary School built in 2018 still bears her name and will always share her story.
“Any time you have an African American female who not only has done so much for the city of Suffolk, but for the field of education, those are things you want to be able to use for the next generation, not only as role models but also to inspire them,” Gordon explained.
“My great grandmother’s story is definitely black history, but more importantly I feel like it’s American history," Martin said proudly. "There’s a school in her honor that still stands. Children of all backgrounds, races and religion attend that school. So, her work not only helped the black and African American community, it helped all communities.”
Nearly 400 Rosenwald schools were built in 79 counties in Virginia.
Click here to learn more about them and about the work that Preservation Virginia is doing surrounding the Rosenwald project.