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Joycelyn Elders was born Minnie Joycelyn Jones in Schaal, a poor, remote farming village of southwestern Arkansas. Her parents, Haller and Curtis Jones, were sharecroppers, and all eight of their children—Joycelyn was the oldest—worked with them in the cotton fields. The family shared a three-room cabin with no electricity, and the children walked several miles to attend an all-black school. At the age of fifteen, Elders received a scholarship to Little Rock's Philander Smith College, also a school for blacks. There, she met a doctor for the first time in her life and Edith Jones, the first black woman to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School (UAMS). Elders later credited these experiences with inspiring her to become a doctor.

Elders received a bachelor's degree in 1952 and spent the better part of the next two decades advancing in the medical profession First she served in the ...