Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956, the youngest of three children of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Jemison (née Green). Her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, and her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Ludwig van Beethoven Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. The family first lived in Woodlawn and later the Morgan Park neighborhoods. Jemison knew from a young age that she wanted to study science and someday go into space. The television show Star Trek, and in particular African-American actress Nichelle Nichols' portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura further stoked her interest in space.
Jemison enjoyed studying nature and human physiology, using her observations to learn more about science. Her mother encouraged her curiosity and both her parents were supportive of her interest in science, she did not always see the same support from her teachers. When Jemison told a kindergarten teacher she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up, the teacher assumed she meant she wanted to be a nurse. Seeing a lack of female astronauts during the Apollo missions also frustrated Jemison. She later recalled, "everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being really really irritated that there were no women astronauts."
Jemison began studying ballet at the age of 8 or 9 and entered high school at 12 years old, where she joined the cheerleading team and the Modern Dance Club. She learned several styles of dance, including African and Japanese, as well as ballet, jazz, and modern dance. As a child, Jemison had aspirations of becoming a professional dancer. At the age of 14, she auditioned for the leading role of Maria in West Side Story. She did not get the leading role but was selected as a background dancer.
After graduating from Chicago's Morgan Park High School in 1973, Jemison entered Stanford University at the age of 16. Although she was young to be leaving home for college, Jemison later said it did not faze her because she was "naive and stubborn enough". There were very few other African-American students in Jemison's classes and she continued to experience discrimination from her teachers. In an interview with The Des Moines Register in 2008, Jemison said that it was difficult to go to Stanford at 16 but that her youthful arrogance may have helped her; she asserted that some arrogance is necessary for women and minorities to be successful in a white male dominated society.
At Stanford, Jemison served as head of the Black Students Union. She also choreographed a musical and dance production called Out of the Shadows. During her senior year in college, she struggled with the choice between going to medical school or pursuing a career as a professional dancer after graduation; she graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. degree in chemical engineering. and B.A. degree in African and African-American studies. While at Stanford, she also pursued studies related to her childhood interest in space and first considered applying to NASA.