February 19: Minnie Joycelyn Elders

Minnie Joycelyn Elders became the first Black United States Surgeon General when she was appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It was only the latest of the firsts she had achieved.

The daughter of sharecroppers in Arkansas, she graduated valedictorian of her high school class and became the first in her family to go to college when she enrolled at Philander Smith College. After graduation, she would go on to be the first person in the state of Arkansas of any race to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, and the first African-American public health administrator. Then-Governor Clinton appointed her Director of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987, making her the first woman and the first African-American to hold that office as well.

She is credited with reducing the teen pregnancy rate by increasing the availability of birth control, counseling, and sex education at school-based clinics; a tenfold increase in early childhood screenings from 1988 to 1992 and a 24 percent rise in the immunization rate for two-year-olds; expanded the availability of HIV testing and counseling services, breast cancer screenings, and better hospice care for the elderly and patients; increased the number of school clinics and expanded sex education to prevent disease transmission.

Thanks to her efforts, Arkansas implemented a “kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade course curriculum encompassing not only sex education, but instruction in hygiene, substance-abuse prevention.” She believed poor Black girls who became teenage mothers were “captive to a slavery the 13th Amendment did not anticipate,” and she was dedicated to reducing the number of young girls who faced this fate.

She was a sharp critic of men, especially ministers, for exploiting Black women and stripping them of their reproductive health choices, because “If you can’t control your reproduction, you can’t control your life.” On abortion, for instance, she said, “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.”

As Surgeon General, she fought for drug legalization, believing that legalizing drugs (especially marijuana) would lead to lower crime rates. She also advocated for masturbation education as a way to perhaps give teens options other than engaging in risky sexual behavior. Both of these stances drew sharp censure from the Clinton administration, but it was the latter that led the president to force her resignation.

A 2015 article for the National Institutes of Health described her thusly:

A brilliant, talented, and powerful woman, she had strong views and no hesitation in stating them — loudly, clearly, and honestly. She had no qualms about honing in on controversial subjects and speaking her mind, and no problem being at the center of constant media attention. Many of those on the right end of the political spectrum detested her. Rush Limbaugh vilified and ridiculed her on an almost weekly basis.

Elders was fully aware that her being Black and female put an additional target on her back.

“Some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn’t even know that I was a physician. And they were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician — which was a knock at me,” she said. “They don’t expect a black female to have accomplished what I have and to have done the things that I have.”

But, “I am who I am because I’m a Black woman,” she said.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com