Throughout the month of February, which is designated as Black History Month, students throughout Las Cruces Public Schools have learned about a wide range of topics surrounding cultural diversity and historical events. Students have studied civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clara Belle Williams, the first African-American student to graduate from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now known as New Mexico State University.

Clra Belle Williams

Clara Belle Williams (courtesy NMSU)

Black History Month is not only being celebrated at the school level but also at the at the administration level. LCPS Human Resources Coordinator Alice Chavez-Villa shares a unique connection to the month. She lives in Williams’ former residence.

“My parents purchased my childhood home from Clara Belle Williams in 1974, so she [Williams] has continued to be an inspirational figure in my life,” Chavez-Villa said. “Clara Belle’s story inspired me to follow my passion and persevere in the face of adversity.”

House

Historical photo of Clara Belle Williams’ previous residence in the Mesquite Street Historical District.

The home is still in use. It is located in the Mesquite Street historical district and is now occupied by Chavez-Villa and her family.

“The home’s connection to Clara Belle also instilled a spirit of perseverance in me, which I have passed on to my daughter, who is bi-racial,” Chavez-Villa said.

Chavez-Villa also said she feels she has an additional connection to Williams through her own teaching experience at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Williams taught at the school for more than 20 years.

Recent photo of Clara Belle Williams' former residence.

Recent photo of Clara Belle Williams’ former residence.

According to NMSU historical records, Williams taught at Booker T. Washington during a time when Las Cruces’ public schools were segregated. While teaching she was taking courses only offered during the summer and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from NMCA&MA in 1937 at the age of 51.

Williams went on to receive many honors during her lifetime. She succeeded despite significant obstacles of discrimination placed before her while pursuing her higher education. In 1961, NMSU named Williams Street on the main campus in her honor. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from NMSU in 1980.

Clara Belle Williams Day was celebrated on Sunday, February 13, 2005 at NMSU. Included in the festivities was the renaming of the NMSU English Building as Clara Belle Williams Hall. On July 3, 1994, Williams passed away at the age of 108.

According to History.com, since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.

-LCPS Communoications Coordinator Paul Dahlgren, pdahlgren@lcps.net, (575) 527-5808