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
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.
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.
THE WIDOW OF ROSE HILL
Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself
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?