From Ohio History Central
John R. Bowles was chaplain of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War. He was a schoolteacher and is known to be 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. Records show they had at least two children. Bowles was a schoolteacher and a minister in Chillicothe, Ohio. Before the Civil War, he served as minister of Chillicotheâ€™s First Anti-slavery Baptist Church, also known as First Baptist Church. While he was pastor, Bowles helped organize a renowned choir, which traveled across southern Ohio; during the performances, the choir resonated support of Anti-slavery.
With the Civil Warâ€™s outbreak in April 1861, Bowles became convinced that his conflict would lead to slaveryâ€™s destruction. He had actively assisted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad in pursuit of freedom, and had hoped to enlist in the Union military to support Anti-slavery. However, the federal government had prohibited African Americans from military duty, which was changed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Bowles enlisted in the Company K of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. In February 1864, he enlisted as a Chaplin, becoming the first African American in the regiment to be a commissioned officer. His commission service ended at the conclusion of the war and he resigned on June 12, 1865.
Upon leaving the military, Bowles returned to Ohio where he continued to minister and teach in the public schools in Chillicothe and then in Cincinnati and Xenia.
John R. Bowles died in Xenia, Ohio on September 3, 1874.