Handfuls of Change

Handfuls of Change

Lauran Kerr-Heraly

“She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.”

Proverbs 31:20

In the fall of 1948, Edith Irby Jones became the first African American student admitted to the medical school of the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, Arkansas. This made her the first African American student admitted into an all-White medical school in the South. In a class of ninety-one students, she was the only African American person and one of only three women. To pay for her tuition, Black and White residents of Hot Springs took up a collection to help her pay for her medical school expenses. Contributions of nickels, dimes, and dollar bills eventually totaled $500.

Her desire to help those with the least access to medical care led her to set up a clinic in Houston’s Third Ward after a local businessman loaned her $17,000 to open a practice. In addition to her private practice, she served on the staff of Riverside Hospital because she agreed with the mission of Riverside to reach both those who could pay and those who could not. She later served as the hospital’s chief of staff. In the late 1960s she helped established Mercy Hospital in southeast Houston to serve the poor.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Dr. Irby Jones a few times before she passed away. Her many accomplishments are impressive, but it is her outlook that has inspired me most. In all her years of practice, she never charged a patient who could not pay. In the United States, medical care is expensive and exclusive. Dr. Irby Jones sought to treat everyone with dignity. This is a beautiful picture of opening hands to the poor.

Her story is also a wonderful illustration of the importance of community. The residents of her small town believed in her talent enough to contribute financially to her medical training. A businessman believed in her vision enough to finance the start of her practice. In turn, Dr. Irby Jones reached out her hands to the needy by investing her time and efforts into hospitals that served the poor.

When asked about her favorite achievement, Dr. Irby Jones responded, “It’s maybe my persistence, to see that the needs of the poor have been met, and met with dignity, that they did not have to go to a physician’s office with some of the limitations that poor people had before – particularly Blacks, where they were seen in a different room, where they had to come through a different door, when they were seen that they did not get the same kinds of adequate medical care that others were being given, and that’s the paid against the unpaid, primarily. I think maybe my being here, in these situations, has meant to those who could not speak for themselves, or felt they could not speak for themselves, that they had a voice in me.”

These words from the Dominican Sisters of Peace encourage us to follow Dr. Irby Jones’s example of serving the poor with dignity:

“O Lord, open our hearts to respect and uplift the dignity of every person. Open our eyes to see the injustices within church and society. Open our ears to listen and learn from the experiences of people of color. Open our mouths to speak out against prejudice and injustice. We commit ourselves to work for justice and peace, and to pursue a deeper relationship to you, Lord, so that we truly may be the body of Christ on earth, your church for the sake of the world.”

From “A Prayer for Uplifting Human Dignity” prepared by Sister Joanne Caniglia, OP

Further reading:

Lauran Kerr-Heraly, “Jones, Edith Mae Irby,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 13, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/jones-edith-mae-irby.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Irby_Jones#/media/File:EdithIrbyJones.jpg

Lauran Kerr-Heraly (Ph.D., University of Houston) is Professor of History at Houston Community College.