James Clayton Flowers was born in Virginia on Christmas Day, 1915. He served in the United States Army Air Forces in the early 1940s and is a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman, a term reserved for military personnel who served at Tuskegee Army Air Field between the years 1941 and 1949. He retired in 1945 as a First Lieutenant, taught in public education for many years, and currently lives in Las Cruces. (Courtesy of the Flowers family)
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Born in Virginia on Christmas Day of 1915, James Clayton Flowers was raised by an intellectual mother and an industrious father, both of whom instilled in their son the values of hard work, education and – something conflicting for a future military man – the tenets of pacifism.
Flowers is 106 now, living in relatively good health in a middle-class home in Las Cruces. He takes a few medications, primarily for asthma and allergies, and moves about his home, most often in a motorized ruby red wheelchair. When he stands, he’s still a good height at 6 feet.
“I lost three inches, I was 6 foot 3½ inches,” he said while sitting in a sofa chair in his living room, legs crossed, large hands gesturing as he spoke. “I’m a big talker, at the same time, I’m not very sociable. I could live on an island.”
His philosophy of life is simple. “I don’t feel like I’m more important than anybody else. But it is important to like yourself, because you’ll never get another one. And it is important not to dislike anybody else. I taught my children the same,” he said.
Flowers is the oldest of the Journal’s featured veterans, and his military pedigree descends from one of Black America’s most hallowed institutions: the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Formed during World War II as the first flying unit for African Americans, this unit served with distinction in World War II’s European Theater, gaining accolades for inflicting damage on the enemy while not losing any bombers in more than 200 missions.
Military archives show that the unit is credited with destroying 260 enemy aircraft, earning more than 850 medals, including 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Presidential Unit Citation, Bronze Stars, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen, including the ground crew of which Flowers was a part, had a pivotal role in the decision of post World War II US President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the US military.
In 2007, the unit was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
The US Congressional Record of this event lauded the Tuskegee Airmen for their role in American history, and the record stated that the primarily Black unit “inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces, paving the way for full racial integration in the Armed Forces. They overcame the enormous challenges of prejudice and discrimination, succeeding, despite obstacles that threatened failure.”
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War and peace
As a child, Flowers played basketball and tennis, attending Van de Vyver School in Richmond, which was a Catholic institute that instructed students from sixth grade to high school. Then he enrolled into Virginia Union University, majored in mathematics, and after studying for 3½ years, he joined the Tuskegee unit shortly after enlisting in 1940.
Flowers was 25 when he enlisted. Soon after, while taking a maintenance course, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Flowers, with strong scores in mathematics, was sent for training in military intelligence.
“When I came to post, they put me into teaching and I was what they call an intelligence officer. In about a year they promoted me to first lieutenant,” he said. As a military intelligence officer, he worked with cadets, training them to use US aircraft overhead photographs for the strategic plans of the United States and its allies during the war.
From 1941 to 1945 he served in the US Army Air Forces – the predecessor of the US Air Force. He is considered a “DOTA,” which is a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman, defined by Tuskegee historian Theopolis W. Johnson as “anyone—man or woman, military or civilian, black or white—who served at Tuskegee Army Air Field or in any of the programs stemming from the ‘Tuskegee Experience’ between the years 1941 and 1949.”
Flowers, who was raised by parents who believed in non-violence, was affected by the violent nature of war, and his contributions to that violence. The ultimate reality of war – death, as he saw it – was difficult for him to reconcile with the teachings of peace and nonviolence he received from his mother and father.
“My mother and father were pacifists. They did not believe in killing people,” said Flowers.
“People think of me as a hero for being involved in war, because I became a first lieutenant and all that. But I was a part of the support of killing people. I wasn’t happy.”
At the brink of his next promotion to captain, Flowers instead decided to leave the US Army, and was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1945.
James Flowers and his wife, Evelyn, moved to Las Cruces in 1984 and have lived in the same home after an 82-year career that included Masonry, the US Army, and teaching in New York Public Schools. Flowers and his wife Evelyn had three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. (Courtesy of the Flowers family)
After the military, he moved to New York and returned to working in brick laying. In the evenings he pursued graduate and doctoral courses.
“Well, I was laying bricks, and I continue to study at the New School for Social Research,” a progressive institution in New York, he said. “I was doing work in political science and economics, going there part-time, at night.”
Evelyn Church Flowers, who wed James Flowers In 1951 after a courtship in New York. An educator with a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Studies, she came from a family of teachers and politicians. She retired as an educator with New York Public Schools, and moved with Flowers to New Mexico. She passed away in 2008. (Courtesy of the Flowers family)
In 1951 he married Evelyn Church in New York, a fellow educator who had a master’s degree in Early Childhood Studies. Both had lengthy careers as educators in the New York Public School system—she as a second grade teacher, and he as a junior high school teacher.
In his heart, Flowers has always been an educator, and he says he has enjoyed sharing his knowledge with students throughout his teaching career.
“I have always enjoyed teaching. I enjoy seeing people learn,” he said, and added that he started teaching early, at 18 or 19 years old, when he was an instructor for community night school in Richmond.
After retiring, Flowers and his wife, Evelyn, moved to New Mexico in 1984. She died in 2008.
“She was smart and a good mother and a good wife. We were married for 56 years,” he said. “We were both very proud of our family.”
They had three children: James, a chess master who works full time in computer electronics; Kathy, a pediatrician; and Wendell, also a pediatrician. All of his children “are successful and good parents,” said Flowers. He also has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
When talking about his family, he again confessed to being “a big talker,” but then elaborated.
“My egotism is mainly about my family, it is about feeling lucky to be in the family I am in. I’m proud of them.”