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New Mexico State University names building in honor of first black graduate

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Education was like oxygen to Clara Belle Williams, according to her grandson.

Dr. James Williams, left, and his wife Willeen Williams join with other family members in celebrating the dedication of Clara Belle Williams Hall at New Mexico State University. Clara Belle Williams was the first black student to graduate from NMSU.

"She understood the transformative power of education - indeed, its magic," Dr. James B. Williams II, an Albuquerque surgeon, said at a ceremony in her honor at New Mexico State University. "She never thought she had enough education."

Clara Belle Williams was in her early 50s, and well into a long career as a teacher in the segregated schools that prevailed at the time, when she earned her bachelor's degree in English at New Mexico State University in 1937. She was the first black student to graduate from the university, which was known then as New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.

On Feb. 13, New Mexico State University named its English building Clara Belle Williams Hall "in honor of a person who was unquestionably a pioneer," in the words of university President Michael Martin.

Clara Belle Williams instilled her passion for education in her children and grandchildren. Her three sons, Jasper, Charles and James, all attended NMSU and all went on to become medical doctors. Together they built and operated the Williams Clinic on Chicago's South Side. Four of her grandsons also became physicians, and other grandchildren earned master's degrees in journalism and education.

Mrs. Williams received an honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University in 1980, when she was 94 years old. She passed away in 1994 at the age of 108.

The naming of a building in her honor "makes a statement about what this university values," President Martin said.