There are so many unsung hereos in our history that do not get the recognition they deserve and Edith Jones, who died this week, is more than qualifying. Predating the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, over 70 years ago, Jones became the first Black student to attend a medical school in the South.
Born in Conway, Ark., in 1927 to a mother, who was domestic worker and a father, who was a sharecropper before his untimely death when Jones was eight, she experienced humble beginnings that was far from uncommon for most Blacks in the south. She probably could not have imagined all the things she would do and all of the paths she would pave, yet she dreamed of helping others in a way her sister, who died of typhoid fever, could not be helped; she wanted to be come a doctor.
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According to the New York Daily News, when Jones submitted her application to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1948, there were only 185 Black medical students in the whole country. Jones ranked in the top 230 applicants, but the school had never accepted Black applicants, so they decided to increase the class sizes by one so that white students could not argue that a spot was taken away from a white person.
Despite death threats and other forms of racist taunts, Jones went on to complete her studies to become a trailblazing doctor.
“Dr. Jones has had a dramatic, lasting impact on health care that will never, ever go away,” the school’s chancellor, Cam Patterson, said in a statement. “She was a tremendous woman, and she opened so many doors for minority students. We are forever in her debt.”
In addition to integrating the University of Arkansas, she also became the first Black woman to attend Baylor College of Medicine’s residency program in Houston as well as the first female president of the National Medical Association.
Outside of the medical field, Jones also made her mark in civil rights working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveling from church to church and house to house to urge people to join the Civil Rights Movement. The New York Daily News reported that she was the only physician and female member of what was called the “Freedom Four,” who spread the message of the movement.
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“Her life embodied Dr. Martin Luther King’s call that ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Brian Gittens, a vice chancellor at the University of Arkansas, said in a statement.
Jones died in Houston, she was 91. Memorial services in Texas and Arkansas will take place next weekend.