Making a difference

Riderwood’s Bill Lowell reflects on his lifelong commitment to civil rights

Created date

February 24th, 2020
Bill Lowell smiles warmly from his apartment. He wears a blue collared shirt and has a beard. There is a painting on the wall and a lamp behind him.

In 1968, Riderwood resident Bill Lowell started a program called “Guess Who’s Coming to Colesville: Dialogues in Black and White” to improve race relations in Maryland.

In 1968, Riderwood resident Bill Lowell took an opportunity to support the civil rights movement by organizing a program in his Maryland neighborhood called “Guess Who’s Coming to Colesville: Dialogues in Black and White.” The program brought together people from 11 different Christian congregations for weekly meetings to discuss different aspects of human rights, such as the moral importance of race relations and the need for affordable housing in Montgomery County.

“We had quite a representative group of both white people and black people,” Bill says. “We met on Sunday nights at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and averaged 75 to125 people attending.”

Bringing awareness

Bill and several other parishioners started “Guess Who’s Coming to Colesville” after participating in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s Project Commitment, an eight-week program focused on racial justice. At the end of the program, attendees were encouraged to go back to their communities and work to implement some of the changes that had been discussed.

With that goal in mind, Bill and the other people involved with “Guess Who’s Coming to Colesville” were able to make some meaningful changes in their community. One of the most significant results of their advocacy was the building of an affordable housing development. They also launched a letter-writing campaign to urge local banks to give mortgages to qualified black borrowers, and they encouraged white people to withdraw their memberships from a golf club that did not admit African Americans.

“Where it really made a difference was in the attitude of our community,” Bill says. “People who were unaware, maybe deliberately, of racial injustices became more aware and there was a lot of change of heart.”

Bill says he and his now-late first wife Julia were both raised to treat all people equally and were supportive of the civil rights movement from the beginning. Looking back, he says one of the experiences that inspired him to get more directly involved was the backlash they got from neighbors when they sold their Hyattsville, Md., home to an African American family in 1965.

“Dozens of anonymous, vile, sometimes threatening phone calls came to our home phone—even more were reported by the real estate company,” Bill says. “A few nights after the Fourth of July, Julia and I were sitting in our living room; the children were all in bed. Suddenly, there were explosions all around us, windows shattered, pictures fell from the walls, children woke up screaming.”

They called the police, who discovered that cherry bomb firecrackers had been placed on the outdoor windowsills of their home. When one of the officers learned that they had recently sold their home to a black family, he said, “Then what did you expect?”

Ongoing connections

Bill’s professional life also intersected with the civil rights and human rights movements. He worked for the U.S. Civil Service Commission (USCSC), and from 1975 to 1980, he served as assistant executive director for equal employment opportunity with oversight responsibility for the governmentwide Affirmative Action Program, Hispanic Employment Program, Federal Women’s Program, and Disabled Employees Program. After the USCSC became the Office of Personnel Management, he served as its inspector general until he retired.

Then Bill went back to school and got a master’s degree in theology from the Washington Theological Union. He worked there part-time until 2012, when the school closed.

New home base

In 2003, Bill and Julia moved to Riderwood. Julia passed away, and Bill later married his second wife, Veronica. The two met at a conference of Pax Christi, an international Catholic organization that promotes peace, justice, and human rights. They hit it off and started an email correspondence and later began visiting one another. Veronica was living in Long Island at the time, and she moved to Riderwood when she and Bill decided to marry.

“When she met my seven daughters and they met her, things worked out very well,” Bill says. “We’ve now been married for 12 years.”

Bill is a volunteer with Holy Cross Home Care and Hospice and visits Riderwood neighbors who are in need of comfort. He is also on the board of CALMRA, an organization that provides residential and support services to people with cognitive disabilities.

One of Bill’s greatest joys is spending time with his very large family, which includes his 7 daughters, 26 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandchildren. The Lowell family recently gathered for Bill’s birthday party in Riderwood’s Maryland Hall. 

“Almost all of my 60 some descendants were there,” Bill says.