- The Life and Work of Dr. Beadie Eugene Conner: An African American Physician in Jim Crow Texas
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On a bright, sunny day in late May 1980, commencement exercises were underway at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. More than 250 physicians, dentists, nurses, candidates in health administration, dental hygienists, and medical technicians prepared to receive their certifications from the second-oldest historically black medical school in the country. Wearing a brown gabardine suit, Dr. Beadie Eugene Conner prepared to be called up to the podium along with some former classmates of Meharry’s class of 1930 to receive a plaque commemorating fifty years of public service. As he made his way up to the podium, tears began to well up in his eyes as he thought about his mother who would be so proud of him, his deceased wife, Willie Ruel, their daughter, Georgia, and the many years that had passed since he received his medical degree. The event contributed to the retired doctor’s desire to write an autobiography. Though never completed, rough drafts of the manuscript’s early chapters (along with other existing personal documents) provide an invaluable window into the interesting life of an important African American physician in twentieth-century Texas.1
The Conner family’s emphasis on education started long before Beadie [End Page 259] was born. The earliest relatives of Dr. Conner so far identified are William Conner and Rachel Sterling Conner of Blount County, in eastern Tennessee. Family records indicate that William was born a slave in Knox County, Tennessee, sometime in 1814. He had already purchased his freedom by 1843 when he married Rachel Sterling, a woman born in 1829 into a free black family. William and Rachel lived on a Blount County farm through the Civil War years, raising six boys and one girl. Beadie Conner’s father, David Alexander Conner, was the fourth oldest son, born in 1859. After William died in 1866, Rachel moved the family to Louisville (a community in Blount County not to be confused with the city in Kentucky), where she kept house while David and his two youngest brothers attended school. By the late 1870s, the family had relocated to Knoxville before breaking up and going their separate ways. Among David’s siblings, his sister became a schoolteacher, two brothers served as ministers, one brother became a successful mortician, and his youngest brother, George Sherman Conner (destined to become a role model for young Beadie), started out as a teacher in Paris, Texas, before becoming a physician and important community leader in Waco.2
Much had transpired in David Alexander Conner’s life by the time his twin children Beadie and Beatrice were born on July 8, 1902, in Miller County, Arkansas, on a farm along the banks of the Red River. A widower living with six children from his previous marriage, he had met Queen Fowler Newlin, a short, beautiful woman of French and Choctaw extraction while attending a Baptist convention in Hope, Arkansas, in 1900. After a brief correspondence and courtship, the two married in 1901. Queen had five children from her previous marriage, thus Beadie and Beatrice became the youngest additions to a family already containing eleven brothers and sisters (In 1905, another child, Cleopatra, would be added to the mix.) Beadie noted in his autobiography that it was a tight-knit group: “My sister and I were the pride and joy of the family being the youngest,” he wrote. “We were spoiled to no end by them.”3 [End Page 260]
The Conners sharecropped until repeated flooding of the Red River forced them to relocate to nearby Texarkana in 1906. At the turn of the twentieth century, Texarkana was a bustling town along the Texas-Arkansas border with 10,000 residents, about 40 percent of them African American. Lumber mills, plus railroad yards and repair shops, provided the basis for a growing manufacturing base. Soon after arriving, David Conner arranged to go into a boarding business with a man who had a two-story frame house...