Bowman Gray

R. J. Reynolds considered himself to be the best salesman in the history of the world. But he generously allowed that if he was not, then Bowman Gray was, which was why he hired him in the first place, and why he anointed Bowman to be his successor as the head of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Bowman had to wait a few years after R.J.’s death to take the reins, but once in the saddle he rode hard, leading the company to some its best years ever. And while he was at it, he oversaw the construction of two of the best buildings ever put up in North Carolina…the 1929 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company headquarters building and his own residence, the magnificent 1932 French eclectic Graylyn manor house.

In 1940, Bowman’s widow, Natalie Fontaine Lyons Gray and her children donated $750,000 (about $12.8 million in today’s money) in RJR stock and other monies to move the fledgling Wake Forest College medical school to Winston-Salem. Since then, it has flourished and become one of the top medical schools in the world. In 2001, the school commissioned Earline Heath (King) to create a sculpture of Bowman. In real life, Bowman was seldom seen outdoors without a hat on his head, but Earline liked his hairstyle, so put his hat in his hand and rendered him bareheaded.


Earline Heath (King) created the statue of Bowman Gray in 2001

Bowman has been standing for 15 years near Hawthorne Road in Ardmore. But that was never his natural environment. Today he is back where his heart always was, on Vine Street at the center of the bustling R.J. Reynolds complex, renamed and repurposed as the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, a growing center of medical research and education.

The RJR Plant 60 complex was built in the early 20th century and was primarily used for stemming…after cured tobacco leaves were bought at auction, the first step in production was to separate the leaf material from the stems…it was dirty, dusty work which required a good bit of manual dexterity…women were typically better at it than men, but were paid 10¢ per hour less than the men…stay tuned for our coming series on Vine Street which will include the saga of the only successful strike ever against RJR, led by black women stemmers, which rectified that injustice.


Striking stemmers on Vine Street, 1947

But beginning today, Plant 60 becomes the Bowman Gray Medical Education Building of the Wake Forest Baptist Medical School…the most advanced medical school building in the world. Bowman stands out on the plaza, and having had a bit of experience with top notch architecture, I’m sure that he is pleased to be there…in fact, I would swear I saw him smiling just a smidgen today.


Bowman Gray comes home…

For everything you need to know about the new building, including virtual tours, go here:

Allow plenty of time for clicking around and be sure to scroll down to the bottom to see a terrific video of how Bowman got from Hawthorne Road to Vine Street.

And for a huge, illustrated look at the life and times of the extraordinary Earline Heath and her equally extraordinary long time husband and sidekick Joe “Vinciata” King, go here:

Everywhere you go in the Twin City, the shades of Bowman and Earline and Joe are never more than a whisper away.