Iola Bowden Chambers, music teacher and director of the Negro Fine Arts School, was born at Holder, Texas, on October 18, 1904. She was the daughter of Andrew Mack and Amanda (Heflin) Bowden. Her father was a doctor, and Iola was a fifth-generation Texan.
She developed an early interest in music and studied privately while attending the public schools at Holder and May. She attended the last two years of high school at Daniel Baker Academy in Brownwood and graduated in 1921. After receiving a diploma in piano from Daniel Baker College in 1923, she studied piano at the Washington Conservatory of Music, where she received a graduate diploma in piano in 1926. She returned to Texas and taught piano in May, Rotan, and Breckenridge, as well as at Baylor University, before moving to Georgetown in 1933 to teach at Southwestern University and complete her degrees, a B.F.A. (1935) and a B.A. (1936). She subsequently stayed at Southwestern University as instructor of music, teaching piano and harmony. She later taught piano pedagogy. She began a master's program at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in the summer of 1938 and completed it in the summer of 1941.
In 1946 Bowden and several of her piano students founded the Negro Fine Arts School, in which students from Southwestern University taught local African-American children to play the piano. The program was sponsored by the Student Christian Association at Southwestern University and was conducted at the First Methodist Church of Georgetown. The project, in operation from 1946 to 1966, added vocal music and art in later years.
The Negro Fine Arts School provided generations of black children an opportunity to learn music. It staged an annual recital, complete with a printed program, to showcase the students' accomplishments. It awarded scholarships to students going to college or pursuing other higher education. The school also helped to ease the transition from segregation to integration both in the Georgetown Independent School District and at Southwestern University. The first African-American student to enroll at Southwestern University was a student of Iola Bowden and an alumnus of the Negro Fine Arts School. Charles Miller, one of the first students in the Negro Fine Arts School and in 1993 an administrator for the Georgetown Independent School District, characterized Iola Bowden as "the one that came across the railroad tracks and helped us all. Miss Bowden was to Georgetown what Eleanor Roosevelt was to the United States, because she was one of the first."
Bowden was promoted to assistant professor in 1948 and to associate professor in 1960. In addition to her work as a member of the music faculty and as director of the Negro Fine Arts School, she supervised the Junior Music Department at the university for years and was organist for the First Methodist Church in Georgetown for more than twenty years. She was active in state and national professional organizations, including the American Guild of Organists, the National Federation of Music Clubs (in which she was a district officer), the Texas Music Teachers' Association, the National Guild of Piano Teachers (she served as a judge in the National Piano Playing Auditions), and the American College of Musicians. She was one of the founders of the Delta Nu chapter of Delta Omicron at Southwestern University and served as a national officer in that organization. She was a member of the Alpha Chi honor society. She published an article, "Musical Phrasing," in Southwestern Musician in June 1949.
In 1955 Iola Bowden married Walter R. Chambers. She retired from Southwestern University in 1966, and the couple moved to Brownwood. After her retirement she continued to be active professionally and endowed a scholarship in music at Southwestern University. She died at her home in Brownwood on December 14, 1978, and was buried in May, Texas.