Backtrack: Dora Atkins

Flower Power: From botany student to top Indianapolis florist, one woman planted the seeds of her own destiny.

Lilies, tulips, and verbena. Rhododendrons and roses. Sprays of forsythia and—behind a glass case—the rare and fragile orchid. For decades, the Atkins Flower Shop in Indianapolis bloomed year-round as the only black-owned business of its kind.

The mastermind behind it all—the one who studied the science of flowers, who traveled from city to city learning from the best florists, who shrewdly transformed a mom-and-pop operation into one of the city’s most enduring shops run by an African American—was a woman, no less, with a straightforward demeanor and a name to match: Dora Atkins.

Her mother, the elder Dora Atkins, was the one to open the shop in 1921, and the younger Dora and her older sister, Murray, often helped tend to business. They lost both parents tragically in 1923: Dr. Calvin Atkins died from a gunshot wound, and shortly afterward, their mother expired after a long illness. But the pair decided they could keep the business going even though Dora was still a student at Butler University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in botany.

The young women moved the shop to 209 West 21st Street in 1923 (later to 2049 North Capitol Avenue). When Murray took a position as an eighth-grade teacher at School 19, Dora Oma Atkins became the flower shop’s sole owner. She proved both a successful businesswoman and an active member of Indianapolis’s middle-class African-American community, hosting parties and attending lectures and other events that appeared in the newspaper society pages. She remained single into her 30s, but by 1945, the Indianapolis City Directory shows the Atkins Flower Shop’s owner’s name had changed to Dora Atkins Powell. Her husband, Cecil Powell, came to work for his wife after he retired from his job as a postal clerk in 1954, staying until his death in 1957. More than a decade afterward, she married Cleo Blackburn, the executive director of the Flanner House and a mover-and-shaker in the city.

The determined “flower girl” had owned the shop for 56 years by the time she sold it in 1977. That year, then-Mayor William Hudnut declared August 28 “Dora Atkins Blackburn Day.”

Blackburn died at the age of 97 in 2001, having outlived two husbands. She was a charter member of both the Indianapolis public radio station (WFYI) auxiliary and the National Urban League’s Indianapolis chapter, according to her obituaries. And she turned a flower shop into an Indianapolis institution.