NMSU’s First Black Graduate
Clara Belle Williams dedicated her life to education as a teacher, life-long student and devoted mother.
She went on to receive many honors during her lifetime and was an inspiration as she succeeded despite significant obstacles of discrimination placed before her while pursuing her higher education.
In 1961, New Mexico State University named Williams Street on the main campus in her honor. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from NMSU in 1980.
Clara Belle Williams Day was celebrated on Sunday, February 13, 2005 at NMSU. Included in the festivities was the renaming of the NMSU English Building as Clara Belle Williams Hall.
Clara Belle Drisdale was born in Plum, Texas in October 1885. She attended Prairie View Normal and Independent College (now Prairie View A & M University) in Prairie View, Texas beginning in 1903, and was valedictorian of her 1908 graduating class.
She married Jasper Williams in 1917, and had three sons: Jasper, James, and Charles. Mr. Williams died in 1946.
Williams took courses at the University of Chicago, and then enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts in the fall of 1928.
Mrs. Williams taught at the Booker T. Washington School in Las Cruces, New Mexico for more than 20 years, during a time when Las Cruces’ public schools were segregated. While teaching she was taking courses only offered during the summer and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from NMCA&MA in 1937 at the age of 51. In a 1980 interview, Mrs. Williams recalls that commencement ceremonies were cancelled after a group of students refused to walk with her. She received her diploma through the registrar’s window.
Clara Belle Williams continued her education well beyond her graduation date, taking graduate level classes into the 1950s. Mrs. Williams provided a shining example of overcoming adversity and served as an inspiration to her family and the people she met throughout her life.
Mrs. Williams’ three sons all went to college and graduated with medical degrees. Charles attended Howard University Medical School in Washington D.C.; Jasper and James graduated from Creighton University Medical School in Omaha, Nebraska. They went on to found the Williams Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. Mrs. Williams always urged her sons to succeed in higher education – and they did just that.
Clara Belle Williams went on to receive many honors during her lifetime. She succeeded despite significant obstacles of discrimination placed before her while pursuing her higher education.
Mrs. Williams passed away July 3, 1994 at the age of 108.
Discussion with Clara Belle Williams and family, May 10, 1980
Special thanks to the following people for their contributions:
- Dr. Troy Franklin, Director of Black Programs, NMSU
- Dr. James Williams, son of Clara Belle Williams
- Mrs. Brenda Jones, granddaughter of Clara Belle Williams
- Mr. Clarence Fielder, Las Cruces area educator and historian