Clara B Williams’ professors did not allow her inside the lecture room because she was black. She didn’t give up. She stayed and took notes from the hallway standing up, and became the first African-American to graduate from New Mexico State University.
She was born in LaGrange, Texas on October 29, 1885, to sharecroppers Isaac and Carrie Melinda Moppins Drysdale.
She reportedly got her first education in a one-room country schoolhouse near LaGrange and in 1901 she went on to Prairie View Normal and Independent College, now Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University, in Prairie View, Texas.
She graduated from Prairie View Normal and Industrial College in 1905 with a teacher’s certificate as valedictorian of her class. After graduation, she became the head of the institution’s sewing department.
She later moved to El Paso, Texas. In 1917 she married Jasper Williams, a pharmacist in El Paso and together they ran a drug store and had three sons, Jasper, James, and Charles.
Williams’ family left Texas and moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1924. Four years later, she enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) where she was segregated from other students because of her race.
As a result, she resorted to listening to lectures outside of classrooms and took notes while standing in the hallway.
Williams would later become the first African-American to graduate from New Mexico State University in 1937 at the age of 51. Even though she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English, she was still denied the chance to participate in the graduation ceremony.
Notwithstanding the indignity, Williams continued at the University taking 12 hours of graduate work.
Despite the racially segregated Las Cruces school system, Williams taught at the Booker T. Washington School for 27 years before retiring.
In 1951 she moved to Chicago to join her sons who had opened a medical clinic.
In 1961, New Mexico State University officials realized how unjust they had been toward their first black college graduate hence, named Williams’ family outstanding alumnae of the year.
Interestingly, her three sons who are all Physicians also graduated from the New Mexico University. Williams was also honored by the Chicago area Fine Arts Guild while the Order of Eastern Star-Eureka Grand Chapter named her the 1966 outstanding mother and businesswoman of the year.
The university also named a street on its campus after her family. In 1969, the New Mexico Education Association named her to the Educational Hall of Fame.
Forty-three years after her graduation, the school officials apologized to her for the racist treatment she endured and conferred an honorary law degree on Williams.
According to her biography, Mrs. Williams worked as a proud receptionist in her sons’ clinic until she retired at 91. She lived to be 108 years old.
In 2005, the university named its English building Clara Belle Williams Hall and subsequently, the Clara Belle Williams Scholarship Award was established in her honor.