I don’t know who originated the mantra, “Until God opens a door, praise Him in the hallway,” but it may have been Clara Belle Williams. She was born Clara Belle Drisdale into a devout Christian home in Plum, TX, in 1885, and graduated – the first Black student to enroll at New Mexico State University – cum laude, at the age of 51.
The unknown travesty in that short paragraph is the treatment she received enroute to her dream. Because of “Jim Crow laws,” many of the professors at NMSU would not allow her to sit in their classes, but she would not be deterred. She listened from the hallway and took notes often standing up. Her Christian values would not allow her to develop a vitriolic spirit in spite of the heinous treatment that era in American history permitted.
A crowning insult was that, in spite of her cum laude record, she was not allowed to march with her class at the graduation ceremony because she was a person of color. She continued her schooling and taught for a while at the Booker T Washington School in Los Cruces. She married Jasper Williams and the couple had three sons. All three of them became physicians and later they would open the Williams Clinic in Chicago. After Clara’s husband died, she joined her sons as receptionist in their clinic until the age of 91. She lived to be 108.
In 1961, New Mexico State University officials began to recognize the inhumane injustices toward this outstanding woman and began to make amends. In 1969 the New Mexico Education Association inducted Williams into the Educational Hall of Fame. In 1980, 42 years after she graduated, she was granted an honorary doctorate from NMSU. In 2005 the university renamed its English building after her.
When I first discovered Dr. Williams’ story I was stunned. Much of it happened during my lifetime. That my country would permit that depth of inhumanity to many of my fellow citizens is a staggering reality. I believe that for most of us that kind of tragic inequality is simply not acceptable.
But the other take-away from this story is one I want to make sure isn’t lost. Here was a woman who, facing excruciating obstacles, would not be turned aside. As a Christian woman, a praying woman as she describes herself, no amount of pain could cloud her vision of becoming what God wanted her to be. Dr. Clara Belle Williams changed her world.
By Don Jacobsen