September 30, 2023

Dr. Edith Irby Jones: “All I Wanted Was to Help My Fellow Man”

Houston – She was a just a little girl growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas at a time before our nation evolved from  the era of open racism, discrimination and Separate but Equal.

She learned early what it took to overcome odds and barriers to prove that no only were Blacks competent and capable learners, but also women could stand the rigorous test of academic challenges to rise above.

Dr. Edith Irby Jones not only was baptized in Civil Rights waters, but waded in those same waters courageously with the desire to cut a path of opportunity for others, change lives and make communities healthier and better.

She became the first Blackstudent to attend racially mixed classes in the South, and the first Blackstudent to attend the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. All in 1948, some nine years before the “Little Rock Nine” ever integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The doctrine that racial segregation is constitutional as long as the facilities provided for blacks and Whites are roughly equal. This doctrine was long used to support segregation in the public schools and a variety of public facilities, such as transportation and restaurants, where the facilities and services for blacks were often clearly inferior

“People saw segregation as the law, because schools were somehow politically connected,” she said. “However, in our neighborhoods, living arrangements were integrated. The hostilities between races was not as pronounced as it was in other places in the south.”

A Dream of Courage to Overcome

Before years before her famed entrance into medical school, Jones had to navigate through some very difficult times, including the death of her father at an early age. He died after being kicked by a horse. She said she remembers seeing him laid out on the living room floor where people tried to revive him, but all efforts were unsuccessful.

Without a father, her mother became the sole breadwinner and that left her mother working long hours to take care of the family. For Jones, it meant many evenings and nights alone to study and learn lessons – time she did not waste, but used to her advantage.

“My mother had to work long hours and sometimes no one was there to help me,” she said. “I did not make excuses. I put in the time and did what I could to lift myself from where I was to where I wanted to be.”

Motivation to Heal 

“I was inspired to become a doctor with the death of my sister. I felt that if I had been a physician, or if there had been other physicians who would have been available, or if we had money adequately – which may not be true – that this physician would have come to us more frequently and that she would not have died.”

She also fondly remembers the Hot Springs community being a little more tolerant than most communities in the South, as the area was known for its geo-thermal hot springs that bubbled up from the ground and out of mountains.

“I attended segregated school, but was exposed to all the advantages of White students,” she said. “We had some White teachers in our schools and we lived next door to White couple with kids my age and we played together and did everything except go to school.”

“Even though living arrangements in city was primarily Blackand White, all were well kept neighborhoods where you could drive through and not know who lived there,” she said.

According to Jones, people from all walks of life would visit Hot Springs to take advantage of what was termed as the “healing waters” that bubbled from the ground and flowed out of the mountains.

Describing the flocks, she said it appeared that when it came to health, race and color did not matter much because all people wanted was to get to the water.

During that time, she said she saw a number of people with various medical ailments coming in with high hopes of being healed by the waters. It was seeing and experiencing it that undergirded her desire to be a physician.

“ Growing up I was exposed to suffering… I saw the crippled and many others needing medical attention,” she said. “I wanted to help them and the way I felt then is that I can best help my meeting physical and spiritual needs. The best way I decided I could help was to be a doctor.”

As she saw many of the people, she said it motivated her even more to want to make a difference in the lives of others and decided that she  would work hard and not stop until she fulfilled that dream of making communities healthier and better.

The path to her dream was not easy as she had to overcome the stigmas of the time of being Blackand being a woman.

Help From the Village

Jones was denied equal access to educational opportunities from childhood, but her determination to fulfill her dream was the driving force that kept her using her abilities and talents. She was also encouraged by a working mother and a supportive family and much of the  were nurtured and the larger African-American “village” community, which taught her to believe in herself and that “you can do anything you want to do,” she said.

One of her high school teachers helped her get a scholarship to the historically BlackKnoxville College in Tennessee. After high school, African Americans in Little Rock and across Arkansas contributed to her medical school fund with dimes and quarters.

High school alumni helped her pay for her medical school tuition, while a similar effort sponsored by the Blacknewspaper, the Arkansas State-Press, paid for her living expenses. Even the medical school’s custodial staff supported her—placing a vase of fresh flowers on her table in the adjoining—and segregated—staff dining room every day.

“In those days, scholarships did not exist,” she said. “Many times I did not know where money would come, but it always seemed to come and we used it to fulfill my dream.”

She recalls how her two fellow students, who were White women, helped her and supported her even at the risk of being criticized and persecuted.

“We felt we were different because females not accepted without some restrictions and I had more restrictions  as  a Blackwoman– I could not use White restrooms. I had separate restroom. It was the law of land.”

Giving Back

With so much help and support, Jones sought opportunities to give back and worked to help others, spending many nights traveling the state to help enlist members into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Jones recalled later that, while some White women in her class became good friends, her strongest support in medical school came from her husband, Professor James B. Jones, whom she met and married while she was a second-year medical student.

However, despite the restrictions, she overcame the odds and graduated medical school.

After receiving her M.D. in 1952, Jones practiced in her home town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, for six years.

But she and her husband moved to Houston when the racial climate became sharply polarized.

Throughout her career Dr. Jones has passionately and steadfastly committed herself to social betterment, the poor, and her community.

Her compassion and activist roots combined to cause her to work for social justice and civil rights, even meeting and sitting at the feet of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962.

Jones spent many years tirelessly proving medical care and offering her hand and support to efforts to improve the lives of people in the community.

Because she could not join the American Medical Association due to its race limitations and admission policies on African-Americans, she joined the National Medical Association.

The discriminatory policies of the nation at the time the NMA was founded manifested countless examples of the inadequacies of a segregated health care system.  In the South, hospital accommodations were frequently substandard. If blacks were admitted to general hospitals at all, they were relegated to all-Blackwards. In some instances, White nurses were prohibited from caring for Blackpatients. Conditions in the North were also inequitable.

“The Blackmedical associations started because no Blackdoctors were accepted by the all White society. We made progress and needed each other to relate to other physicians in our same practice  areas,” she said. “It also offered some great social and educational benefits. It still exists today and even though things have changed significantly, there is still a need for it.”

The National Medical Association (NMA) is the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing African American physicians and health professionals in the United States. Established in 1895, the NMA is the collective voice of more than 30,000 African American physicians and the patients they serve. A priority item on the first NMA agenda was how to eliminate disparities in health and attain professional medical care for all people.

Racism in medicine created and perpetuated poor health outcomes for Blackand other minority populations.

The NMA was founded in 1895, during an era in US history when the majority of African Americans were disenfranchised. The segregated policy of “separate but equal” dictated virtually every aspect of society. Racially exclusive “Jim Crow” laws dominated employment, housing, transportation, recreation, education, and medicine. BlackAmericans were subjected to all of the injustices inherent in a dual medical care system.

In 1985 she became president of the National Medical Association she share insights into her philosophy on life, living and service to her fellow man.

In 1985, during her inaugural address as president of the National Medical Association, Jones stated: “We give little when we give only our material possessions. It is when we give of ourselves that we truly give—the long challenging hours with patients who can pay and those who cannot pay, the agony of sharing the hurts of families with the death of loved ones, the observations of dehumanizing effects of seeing the jobless, the crushed ambitions, and the sharing when all we have to hold on to is the ‘being within’ to inspire the young to take up our role. We have the comfort of knowing that our work is not to make a living but to make a life, not just for ourselves or a select few, but life with its fullness for all, and especially providing the access to health care, which is our special charge.”

She has also been active in the American Medical Women’s Association and Planned Parenthood, as well as other groups. In 1991 she sponsored the establishment of a medical clinic in Haiti.

Jones has been recognized for her efforts to bring good medical care to  her people and the community. In 1986, Houston honored her with Edith Irby Jones Day and in 1988 she was named American Society of Medicine Internist of the Year. Later in 1998, the ambulatory center at the former Southeast Memorial Hospital was named in her honor.

Now at 86, she is retired, but still has a can do attitude and a heart ready to serve. She offers some very good advice and suggestions to the up and coming generations of youth.

“You will still have challenges in life,there is no way around it” she said. “But if you push hard enough and practice excellence over and above your expectations and others, you can achieve most things and if you work hard enough, you can go above and beyond what you set out to do.”

On Dreaming and Setting Goals

“If you want it, you can have it,” she said. “Meet the requirements and do what you should. There are no limitations… unless you set them.

She said the greatest thing people can do for others is to set intentions serve and it will make your life richer and better if you have the intention of making life better for others.

On BlackUnity

“The broad thinkers of old did not get it for themselves alone,” she said. “They took risks and were willing to take chances, so that others can have more. We must work to help others achieve and accomplish things also.”

She referred to the great sacrifices of Blackpioneers like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Daisy Bates and Medgar Evers.

She said Blackpeople must stop the crab in the barrel mentality that threatens real community progress.

“We need to get together… because schools, racial groups and families are different today,” she said. “… Let people aspire and be all they can be. Do not discourage anyone working to benefit the community because we need to bring as many with us as we can to help prepare us physically, mentally for the challenges ahead and we must always be the ones in the trenches that instill hope.”

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