Portrait, Hattie Elam Briscoe Papers, 1937-1997, MS 67,
University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

HATTIE RUTH ELAM BRISCOE was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1916 to parents, Willy Perry Elam and Cloral Burton Elam. She graduated with honors from Central High School (now known as H.B. Pemberton High) in Marshall, Texas.

Hattie graduated at the top of her high school class and much to her surprise her principal awarded her a one-year scholarship to attend her dream school–Wiley College. She anticipated receiving a scholarship, but expected support for the more affordable Bishop College. Hattie’s mother, Cloral, who passed away when Hattie was only 9, attended Wiley and always encouraged her daughter to pursue an education. Hattie described her mother as an intellectual who preferred playing piano and teaching music over housework and cooking. Cloral taught her children to read before they entered school which resulted in Hattie’s promotion to a higher grade level and graduating high school at the age of sixteen.

An elite institution, at Wiley College girls dressed well, and the band and sports teams excelled.. “I graduated from Wiley in ‘37, but it’s still very close to my heart,” she remembered.  “I always tell people that we need our black colleges, because you are a human being in your black school. That might be a little bit selfish, but you are somebody. You’re not just a number.” Hattie enrolled at Wiley College in 1933 and majored in education in order to teach, one of the few occupations available to Black women at the time. Since Hattie’s scholarship only covered her first year of tuition, her stepmother insisted that she move back home once the scholarship ran out. Determined to complete her degree, Hattie ran away from home and found work as a laundress and domestic worker. In 1937, she earned a B.A., and then taught 4th grade in Wichita Falls, TX. She taught a class of fifty-four students and earned a wage of $65.00 per month.

Hattie worked in Wichita Falls until she moved to San Antonio, TX in 1941 with her husband, William M. Briscoe, whom she married in 1940. Hattie met William in 1935 while attending Wiley College. She loved him dearly and fondly remembered the day she first flirted with him. She told her roommate, “That’s a cute little old boy, and I’m gonna go with him.” Hattie’s friend said “How you gonna go with him, he hasn’t even seen you?” to which Hattie responded, “You just watch my smoke.’” Hattie then went up to William and asked him where he was from. Fortunately for Hattie, he was from San Antonio, a city where she happened to know a lot of people, and they soon found they had much to talk about.

After he graduated college, William went into beauty work and opened Briscoe’s Beauty Salon in San Antonio. He taught Hattie everything he knew about being a beautician, and she passed the state board without any formal training. Hattie enjoyed working alongside William in their beauty shop, but her husband knew she was capable of achieving so much more. He encouraged Hattie to become a beauty instructor, so she took classes at Hicks Beauty School. She eventually became a cosmetology instructor and taught classes at Hicks. Hattie’s new career landed her a job at Wheatley High School where she also taught cosmetology. She worked at Wheatley for six years and had plans to work there longer, but her career path would take a different direction.

William once again encouraged Hattie to return to school. She enrolled at Prairie View A&M College with the goals of  earning a master’s degree and becoming the first Black state supervisor in cosmetology.  She completed a degree in Administration and Supervision with a minor in Industrial Education in 1951.

According to Hattie, she never would have become a lawyer had it not been for her unwarranted firing from Wheatley High School where she had returned to teach soon after receiving her degree from Prairie View. As one of the most qualified teachers in her field, with much support from parents and residents, Hattie suspected that the superintendent and principal considered her as a threat. Her advocates wrote letters and signed a petition to the SAISD Board and she even appealed to Austin but the Commissioner of Education claimed not to have jurisdiction. 

Hattie’s friend, Dr. Ruth Ann Bellinger, supported Hattie throughout the ordeal and even formed a Committee on Teacher Security in response to the school district’s decision.  In this way Hattie met Dr. Bellinger’s brother and husband, both attorneys and were impressed with the way Hattie handled her case.  The three of them encouraged Hattie to pursue a career in law and she enrolled in night classes at St. Mary’s University School of Law. 

Although Hattie faced many obstacles at St. Mary’s, she excelled in her coursework. While accepted by her classmates, Hattie learned that few faculty members thought she would succeed. One of her professors told her outright that women had no business in law school and the Dean of the School of Law said she did not have what it took to graduate. The Dean, Hattie presumed, preferred not to have Black students at St. Mary’s and was sure that Hattie would eventually drop out. Despite this lack of encouragement, Hattie made the Dean’s list every semester, and graduated first in her class in 1956, achieving the distinction of being the first African American woman to graduate from St. Mary’s University School of Law. 

Sadly, St. Mary’s School of Law did not acknowledge Hattie’s achievements at the time of her graduation. The school did not mention her achievements  at the graduation ceremony, nor was it printed in the program. This lack of recognition hurt Hattie, but over the years she reminded herself of  all that she had accomplished: “Well, Hattie, you erased two myths of the white man. The white man says women don’t have legal ability. And Blacks are inferior. That was two myths at one time that I erased.” 

Hattie continued to face more challenges after graduation. When the Bexar County district attorney’s office told her they did not hire Black or female attorneys, Hattie opened her own practice. She went on to a successful career in law and served as the only Black female attorney in Bexar County for 27 years. Among the many criminal cases that she handled were several that dealt with killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. 

The professor from St. Mary’s, also a judge, who told Hattie that women had no place in law later came to respect and admire her work. When he died, his clerk showed Hattie a file he had kept in his office with copies of some of her best pleadings. Although the judge never admitted his respect for her, knowing that he had been following her career gave her a great feeling. In 1993, Hattie finally received recognition from the St. Mary’s School of Law as an outstanding alumnae. The school held a reception in her honor and established a scholarship in her name. 

Hattie Briscoe was a member of many organizations, including the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases, the San Antonio Bar Association, San Antonio Black Lawyers Association, Texas Bar Association, Texas Criminal Bar Association, American Bar Association, and the National Association of Black Women Attorneys. She was also a member of the San Antonio Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. 

During her career, Briscoe received numerous awards including a Historical Achievement Award from the Smart Set Social Club in 1962, Superior Achievement in the Field of Law from the alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in 1975, and a plaque of appreciation in celebration of Black History Month as a pacesetter by Lackland Air Force Base in 1981. Briscoe was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame, Wiley College Hall of Fame and Women’s Hall of Fame in the legal field. Additionally, in 1985, she was chosen by Bishop College as one of 30 Texas “Women of Courage.” Hattie Briscoe passed away October 17, 2002. 

By John Cadena (2018) and Cristal Mendez (2021), St. Mary’s University Law Fellows in Public History


  • Texas Archival Resources Online, A Guide to the Hattie Briscoe Papers, 1937-1997 (January 2002), https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utsa/00053/utsa-00053.html.
  • The San Antonio Observer, Hattie Elam Briscoe (April 24, 2018), http://www.saobserver.com/single-post/2018/04/24/HATTIE-ELAM-BRISCOE. 
  • Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Hattie Elam Briscoe (September 2, 2017, 22:50), https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hattie_Elam_Briscoe&oldid=798616170.
  • Barbara Bader Aldave, Women in the Law in Texas: The Stories of Three Pioneers, 25 Sᴛ. Mᴀʀʏ’ꜱ Lᴀᴡ Jᴏᴜʀɴᴀʟ i, 289-301 (1993-1994).