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Celebrating Her Spirit!

Clara Belle Drisdale was born in LaGrange, Texas, (although some accounts say Plum, they are about six miles apart), on October 29, 1885. She was the oldest of the five children born to Melinda and Isaac Drisdale who were sharecroppers. Always a bright child, she received a scholarship to attend Prairie View Normal and Industrial College in Texas. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1908 with a certificate in Domestic Arts. She was subsequently hired as the head of the sewing department at Prairie View.

In 1917 she married Jasper Williams and the couple had three son, Jasper, James and Charles. Williams made education a lifelong priority for herself and her three sons. She taught in Cameron, Texas, before the family moved to El Paso where she and her husband ran a drug store until it was destroyed by fire. Williams then turned back to teaching, her true love, where her first class had five children; two of her sons and three other children.

In 1928 the family relocated to New Mexico where Williams enrolled in the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, now New Mexico State University (NMSU). She worked as a teacher at the Booker T. Washington School in Las Cruces taking courses every summer. In 1937, at the age of 51, she finally earned her bachelors degree in English from NMSU. Many of her professors would not allow her inside the classroom, she had to take notes from the hallway. Life was not easy under Jim Crow’s America especially when you had a black skin in 1903 and you were forbidden to mix with white people or have access to proper education. Williams was the first African American to graduate from NMSU. Sadly, her class boycotted the graduation ceremony because of her race and she was not allowed to walk with her class to receive her diploma.

Williams husband died in 1946 and by 1950 all three of her sons earned medical degrees and settled in Chicago. In 1961 the family fulfilled a dream of starting their own clinic. Mrs. Williams invested her life savings and together with her three sons they opened a 200 room medical center at 408 E. Marquette Road, Chicago, Illinois. James specialized in obstetrics and gynecology while Charles specialized in surgery and internal medicine. Jasper was a general practitioner. Williams herself proudly served as the receptionist at the center where everyone affectionately called her “Grandma.” She held this position until 1978 when she retired.

Mrs. Williams was named outstanding mother and businesswoman by the Fine Arts Guild of the Order of Eastern Star in Chicago. In 1961, New Mexico State University named a street on its campus after Williams. The National Education Association named her to its Hall of Fame in 1977, the same year she was awarded a National Medical Association Scroll of Merit.

Probably her greatest honor came in 1980, when New Mexico State University conferred upon her an honorary doctorate of laws. The honor came more than four decades after she was denied the pomp of a graduation ceremony. The award also apologized for the treatment she was subjected to as a student. In 2005 the building of the English department was renamed Clara Belle Williams Hall. She lived to be 108 years old.

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