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NMSU's English building honors university's first Black graduate

Date: 7/29/20

The English Building may only be 40 years old, but its history dates back to 1928, when New Mexico State University, then known as the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts, enrolled its first Black student to graduate from NMSU. Her name was Clara Belle Williams. The English Building was renamed to honor her in 2005. She lived to be 108 years old.

About the facility

The two-story stucco building has about 26,000 square feet and was originally was built in 1980 and named the English Building. W. T. Harris and Associates designed it and Wooten Construction Company built the facility. It houses the Department of English, classrooms and offices as well as the Writing Center, which provides one-on-one tutoring for all NMSU students and faculty, from undergraduates to PhDs.

About Clara Belle Williams

Clara Belle Drisdale was born in Plum, Texas on October 29, 1885. She was first educated in a one-room country schoolhouse near LaGrange. In 1901 she entered Prairie View Normal and Independent College, now known as Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University in Texas. She graduated from the institution in 1908 as valedictorian with a certificate in domestic arts. After graduation, she was the head of the institution's sewing department before moving to El Paso, Texas.

In 1917, Drisdale married Jasper Williams, a pharmacist in El Paso. Together they ran a drug store and became parents of three sons, Jasper, James and Charles. In 1924, the Williams family left Texas and moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico where they homesteaded 640 acres of land.

Williams pursuit of education

Williams continued her education by taking extension and correspondence courses from the University of Chicago, but in 1928 she enrolled at the New Mexico A&M. While working as a teacher at Booker T. Washington School during a time when Las Cruces public schools were segregated, Williams took courses every summer and eventually earned her bachelor's degree in English in 1937. Under segregation, Williams' professors at New Mexico A&M did not allow her inside the lecture room because she was African American and she resorted to listening to lectures outside of classrooms and took notes while standing in the hallway.

At the age of 51, she was NMSU's first Black graduate. However, because she was African American she was not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. Despite that, her love for education drove her to continue taking graduate-level classes well into the 1950s.

Making education a priority in her family, all three of Williams' sons 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, Neb. They went on to found the Williams Clinic, which served Chicago's south side for more than three decades.

Her husband Jasper died in Las Cruces in 1946 but Williams continued to teach in the racially segregated Las Cruces school system for 27 years before retiring and moving to Chicago in 1951 to join her sons. As a proud mother, she worked as the receptionist in her sons' clinic until she was 91. Williams was 108 when she died in Chicago on July 3, 1994.

Williams' Honors and Awards

Williams went on to receive many honors during her lifetime. She succeeded despite the obstacles of discrimination while pursuing higher education and served as an example of overcoming adversity. Williams was an inspiration to her family and the people she met throughout her life.

In 1961, NMSU officials, recognizing the injustice toward their first African American college graduate, began to make amends. NMSU named the Williams' family outstanding alumnae of the year. The university also named Williams Avenue on campus after her family.

The Chicago area Fine Arts Guild honored Williams and the Order of Eastern Star-Eureka Grand Chapter named her the 1966 outstanding mother and businesswoman of the year. In 1969, the New Mexico Education Association inducted Williams into the Educational Hall of Fame.

In 1980, 43 years after she graduated, Williams received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from NMSU. In 2005, the university renamed its English Building after Williams, considered a "pioneer in education." Clara Belle Williams Day was celebrated at NMSU on Feb. 13, 2005. The Clara B. Williams Scholarship is offered at NMSU in honor of her legacy of lifelong education.

NMSU History Archives