Dr. Cleon Flowers became a respected physician and civil rights activist in a time when it was difficult for minorities to even see a doctor much less become one. Not only did he save lives in his career, he helped open doors for others.
Cleon Aurelius Flowers was born in Stamps in Southwest Arkansas in July 1913. His father was a sawmill worker who eventually came to own his own store. His family had a tradition of hard work and self-improvement, standing up for what was right, and helping others in need. Those values became an important part of who he was and how he saw the world. His two brothers, Harold and Curtis, became prominent attorneys and civil rights activists themselves. Their mother, Beulah Flowers, was a teacher and civil rights activist who had also briefly taught poet Maya Angelou when she lived in Stamps.
After graduating from the segregated high school in Stamps, he attended Arkansas AM&N University in Pine Bluff (what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He graduated with a degree in biology and decided to pursue medicine as a career. He enrolled at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the few medical schools that would admit African-American students at the time.
Flowers graduated in 1943 during World War II and was drafted into the Army Air Force as a physician, rising to the rank of major. After his discharge in 1945, he completed a residency program at the Thomas McRae Sanatorium near Little Rock. Afterward, he opened his own practice in Pine Bluff.
In 1946, he opened his practice at the segregated United Links Hospital. Most of his work was conducted in a small, five-room office suite which included an x-ray room and a small pharmacy. He started his career in a time when medical care was still segregated. Where patients could receive care and whether they could receive care strictly depended on skin color. It was an issue that cost many patients their lives because they could not find a doctor or hospital to treat them. Flowers was active in the local NAACP to combat segregation and belonged to several professional medical societies.
By the early 1950s, he and Dr. Clyde Lawlah became the first African-American physicians to work at Pine Bluff’s Davis Hospital. In an age when the practice of medicine was changing across the United States, he still made house calls. He treated his patients all the same, giving each of them the best care he could provide, rich and poor alike. Insurance was never an issue as so few people had it in the first few decades of his career. He typically charged $2 for an office visit, $3 for a home visit, and $35 to deliver a baby. His patients would pay him with what they had available. Flowers said that it was not unusual for many patients to pay him with chickens, vegetables, or whatever else they had on hand.
His skills as an obstetrician won him national acclaim. He was able to naturally deliver babies lying horizontally instead of the head-down position, something many doctors would have opted to perform a Caesarian section instead.
In 1954, Flowers traveled to a rural home to deliver a baby for one of his patients. For what was normally a routine visit became anything but routine. In the 1950s, sonograms and many of the modern tools used for prenatal care did not exist. Expectant parents did not know if their children were going to be boys or girls or even if they were expecting twins. And doctors had very few tools to know if something was going wrong with the pregnancy.
As Flowers began the delivery, he realized it was going to be conjoined twins. Good doctors learn to think on their feet. Life and death decisions often have to be made in seconds. Flowers worked quickly and carefully to make sure that the mother and the babies would survive. In modern medicine, doctors would usually take the safest possible route and perform a Caesarian section, but in a home delivery in the 1950s, these were especially dangerous. Both babies were delivered successfully, and the mother came through as well – the first time a successful birth of this type had been completed. He received glowing reports in newspapers and in medical journals for his feat.
He continued to serve as a physician well into his eighties. Five of his six children ended up serving in healthcare professions themselves. He continued to give back to the community, serving as a trustee for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The building where he practiced is now called the Flowers Professional Building. A beloved figure in the Pine Bluff community for decades, Flowers died on his birthday in 2002.
Kenneth Bridges is a professor of history at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado.