Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Clara Belle Williams -- First Black Student to Graduate from NMSU

By Michelle Shocklee

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...I was a young student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My mom and dad met on the campus of NMSU back in the 1940s when they were also students there. I even lived in the same dormitory Mom lived in. Dad received his degree in Engineering, making use of his GI benefits after serving in WWII. Mom eventually transferred to a smaller college in Texas to finish her degree in Elementary Education, but they'd fallen in love and married in 1950, settling in Santa Fe. Getting a college education was something my parents believed in, and they made certain all five of us children continued our educations after high school. I wasn't a great student and goofed off more than I studied. It never dawned on me, however, that the privilege of higher education--the very thing I took for granted--was something many people fought for, including one very determined black woman who'd been a student on the same campus where I played.

Clara Bell Drisdale, Valedictorian 1908
Clara Belle Drisdale was born in Plum, Texas in 1885. Although the Civil War ended twenty years prior to her birth, life was still difficult for black citizens. Segregation laws were in place across the country, including in schools and colleges. Despite many obstacles placed in front of her, Clara had a deep love of learning. In 1903, she attended Prairie View Normal and Independent College (now Prairie View A&M University) in Prairie View, Texas and graduated as valedictorian of her 1908 class with a certificate in teaching.

In the years following her graduation, Clara met and married Jasper Williams. They had three sons. Her love of learning never waned, and she went on to take courses at the University of Chicago. In the fall of 1928, Clara enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University), working toward a bachelor's degree in English. While taking classes only offered in the summer, she became the first African American teacher in Las Cruces, teaching at Booker T. Washington, a segregated school. She would teach there for twenty years.

During her time as a student at NMSU, Clara was subjected to discrimination from students and faculty alike. Many professors would not allow Clara to enter their classroom, not even to sit in the back. Unwilling to give up, she stood in the hallway, listening to the lectures, and took notes. Her hard work and determination eventually paid off, and she earned a Bachelor's Degree in English in 1937 at the age of 51.

Can't you picture her proudly walking across the stage to receive her well-deserved diploma, becoming the first African American person to graduate from NMSU?

Well, scratch that image from your mind. Clara was not allowed to graduate with her class. In fact, 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 passed her love of learning on to her three sons. They all attended NMSU and went on to earn 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 founded the Williams Clinic which served Chicago’s Southside for more than three decades.

It would be many years before NMSU would recognize and honor Clara. In 1961, the university named Williams Street on the main campus in her honor. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from NMSU in 1980. And in 1981 -- the same year I attended NMSU -- the Clara Belle Williams Hall (formerly known as the English Building), was built. It houses English Department classrooms and offices as well as the Writing Center. The hall was renamed on February 13, 2005, in honor of Clara Belle Williams. There is also a scholarship given to undergraduates in her memory.

Mrs. Williams passed away July 3, 1994 at the age of 108.

I wish I'd known Clara Belle Williams' story while I was a student at NMSU, but I'm glad I know it now. 

Your turn. Did you attend college? Does Clara's story of determination to overcome obstacles and a love of learning inspire you to further your education?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill, historical sagas set on a Texas cotton plantation before and after the Civil War. Her NEW historical time-slip novel set in Nashville will release in September 2020 from Tyndale House Publishers Inc. STAY TUNED! Michelle and her husband of 32 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com.


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself 
solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?

Natalie Ellis is everything Colonel Levi Maish loathes: a Southern slave owner. When he and his men arrived in Texas with the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves still in bondage despite the war having ended, he feels little concern for the trail of plantation owners left in its wake without workers. But the plight of the beautiful Widow Ellis stirs to life his compassion and the heart he’d thought cold as stone after witnessing the carnage of war. While the army camps on her land, Levi finds himself contemplating a future with Natalie and Samuel. But when he learns where her husband perished during the war, he knows a life with Natalie is impossible. How could she ever forgive him for what he’d done in battle on the banks of the Bull Run?


  1. I'm impressed by the fact that she stood outside the classroom and listened to the lectures. Nowadays there'd be a huge to-do about that! Weren't there any civil liberty movements then? Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks, Connie. Yes, she was a courageous and determined woman! It would still be many years before the civil liberties movement found solid ground. Have a great day!

  3. What an amazing woman.

  4. Hi my name is Serenity Mitchell I'm 14 years old, an I'm doing a project on Mrs. Williams I was wondering if you have any primary sources on her please contact me serenityzmitchell@gmail.com