In 1928 Clara Belle Drisdale Williams enrolled in what was then the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts in Las Cruses. 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. Under the rules of Jim Crow, 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.
Williams eventually graduated from what is now New Mexico State University in 1937 with a degree in English. She was 51 years old. Because she was African American Williams was not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony.
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 three sons, all of whom earned medical doctorates. She worked as the receptionist in her sons’ clinic until she was 91 years old. Williams was 108 when she died on July 3, 1994 in Chicago.
In 1961, New Mexico State Univerity officials, recognizing the injustice toward their first African American college graduate, began to make amends. A street near campus was named in her honor. 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 doctorate from NMSU. In 2005, the university renamed its English Building after Williams.