Clara Belle Drisdale Williams — first African American to graduate from New Mexico State University
By Christina Stock
Today, instead of running my column, Comfort food and books for comfort, I am taking you, the reader, on a journey back in time and into the world of an extraordinary woman, Clara Belle Drisdale Williams. First, however, let us set the stage: June 19, 1865 is an important day, it is better known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. It is the day celebrating freedom from slavery for African Americans.
The saying goes that when it seems the darkest, dawn is near. Drisdale was one of the first children born free, just three months after word spread through Galveston, Texas at the heels of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and Union troops that President Abraham Lincoln declared African Americans free people. News in these days was slow, and the newspapers in the South were still in control of the former slave owners. This might explain why it took two years for the news to reach Texas. Theories of several historians suggest plantation owners in Texas withheld the news to detain African Americans until the last harvest was complete.
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The baby, of course, did not know about the world she was born into. Williams’ birth place was Plum Grove, now Plum, Texas, which is between Austin and Houston.
Williams’ early schooling was in a one-room country school. According to the New Mexico State Archives and African American Registry, Drisdale attended Prairie View Normal and Independent College — now Prairie View A&M University — in 1903. She was valedictorian of her 1908 graduating class of 43 students. She worked in the school laundry every weekday evening to help pay room and board while she attended regular classes every morning.
She taught one year in the city schools of Cameron, Texas where she met Jasper R. Williams who was also a teacher. They married Jan. 21, 1917 and had three sons: Jasper, James and Charles. Unusual for the time, and no doubt because she married a forward-thinking educated man, Clara Belle Williams continued her education.
She first took extension and correspondence courses with the University of Chicago, and then enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts (NMCA&MA) in the fall of 1928. However, she could only take courses offered during the summer because she worked as a teacher at Booker T. Washington School in Las Cruces where she worked for more than 20 years. During the day, she would teach children, at night she would teach their parents — former slaves — home economics.
In 1937, at the age of 51 — and despite having to sit outside the classroom doors — Williams graduated as the first African American with a bachelor’s degree in English from NMCA&MA. Racism, however, reared its ugly head again. According to NMSU Archives, Williams said in a 1980 interview, that commencement ceremonies were canceled after a group of students refused to walk with her. She received her diploma through the registrar’s window.
In 1946, Williams became a widow, however, she continued her education and gave a shining example to her children. All her sons graduated with medical degrees. James Williams served in the U.S. Military in World War II. He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen from New Mexico. In 1960, Jasper and James Williams, along with their mother, founded the Williams Clinic, one of the larger facilities at the time, serving the black community of Chicago.
In 1961, New Mexico State University named Williams Street on the main campus in her honor. Williams received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from NMSU in 1980. With the degree came an apology for how she was treated as a student.
In an article in the Las Cruces Sun, Nov. 9, 1966, it was reported that Williams was honored by being named outstanding mother and businesswoman of the Chicago area by the Fine Arts Guild, Order of Eastern Star — Eureka Grand Chapter. It reads, “Mrs. Williams, who was 81 on Oct. 29, writes, ‘I am still able to do a good half-day of work every day in my sons’ clinic.’ … Mrs. Williams proudly tells, her husband lived to see Charles finish medical school and become a doctor and to know the other two boys were in school on their way to serving their fellow man.” It states that she had filed with her husband and sons as homesteaders upon 540 acres of land in the area of Las Cruces, which they still held intact at the time the article was published.
Williams died in 1994 at the age of 108, leaving a rich heritage and still continuing to help African Americans achieve a higher education. There are two scholarship programs available at NMSU in her name, one is from her family.
Clara Belle Williams Day was celebrated on Feb.13, 2005 at NMSU. Part of the festivities was the renaming of the NMSU English Building as Clara Belle Williams Hall.
James Williams was one of the two original Tuskegee Airmen honored in 2012 at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque as guest of honor at the movie screening of the George Lucas film, “Red Tails.” The film portrays the story of heroism displayed by the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
I had prepared this story almost a year ago, not knowing that racism would be in the headlines again this year. How to honor those who fought for the soul of America? How about celebrating the multiculturalism we have in our community? The strength of the human spirit, the longing for justice and freedom is such an important part of America, despite setbacks of evil or worse, thoughtless racism. Spiritual leaders believe that one day this chapter, too, will be closed, and all Americans will feel equal and safe.
For more information, visit nmsu.edu.