The Amazing Woman Who Was the First Black Graduate of New Mexico State University

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.

Related Articles


  1. A great historical profile of an extraordinary human being. So pleased that NMSU has made some efforts to amend its shameful past transgressions.

Leave a Reply

Get the JBHE Weekly Bulletin

Receive our weekly email newsletter delivered to your inbox

Latest News

Federal Report Uncovers Lack of Faculty Diversity and Delay in Federal Discrimination Complaint Processing

In addition to a lack of diversity in higher education faculty, the report revealed a frequent delay by the Department of Education when referring discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Christopher Span Appointed Dean of Rutgers University Graduate School of Education

Dr. Span, professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois, is a scholar of African American educational history. He has experience in both academic and administrative leadership positions.

Lingering Mistrust From Tuskegee Syphilis Study Connected to COVID-19 Vaccine Reluctance

African Americans who lived within 750 miles of Tuskegee, Alabama, were more reluctant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine than their White neighbors, as well as Black Americans from other United States regions. The authors attribute this finding to lingering mistrust of public health services as a result of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study which ran from the 1930s to 1972.

Clayton State University Selects Corrie Fountain to Serve as Interim Provost

“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve at Clayton State in this interim capacity, and I hope that my contributions will aid in the success of its students, faculty and staff," said Dr. Fountain, currently the associate provost for faculty affairs at Georgia State University.

Featured Jobs