The Early Life of Hattie Elam Briscoe
In honor of Black History Month, Top Shelf is featuring a look at the early life and educational accomplishments of Hattie Elam Briscoe.
Hattie Ruth Elam Briscoe was born to Cloral Burton Elam and Willy Perry Elam in Shreveport, Louisiana on November 13, 1916. She was the second of five children. Hattie’s mother taught her children to read and write before entering school, which resulted in Hattie skipping a grade level upon entering elementary school. Her mother also encouraged and inspired Hattie to go to college. Sadly, her mother suffered a stroke and passed away at the age of thirty-three. Hattie was just nine years old. After her mother’s passing, her father moved the family to Marshall, Texas. Her father remarried, but unfortunately Hattie’s new stepmother was not terribly kind to her. When she was sixteen, her father “whipped” her at her stepmother’s request, and she decided to run away from home. She stayed with friends initially, but then began working as a cook for another family in exchange for room, board, and other necessities.
Upon graduating from high school, Hattie won a scholarship to Wylie College, where she majored in education and minored in German. While attending Wylie, Hattie met her future husband, William Briscoe, a San Antonio native. After college, she began teaching fourth grade in Wichita Falls, Texas. She and William married in secret (due to her teaching job) on October 12, 1940. In 1941 Hattie left her teaching job in Wichita Falls and moved with William to San Antonio.
William had previously attended cosmetology school in Austin, and opened his own seven chair beauty shop in San Antonio on the corner of Pine and Alabama Streets. He passed his skills on to Hattie, who was then able to take and pass the state board without attending cosmetology school. After working with William in their shop, she attended Hicks Beauty School to obtain her instructor’s license, and began working for the same school afterwards. She also taught cosmetology at Wheatley School (now Brackenridge High School) for six years.
While teaching at Wheatley, William encouraged Hattie to return to school for her master’s degree. However, upon obtaining her master’s degree in administration and supervision from Prairie View A&M University, she was fired from her job at Wheatley. Hattie speculated that it may have been due to jealousy from the superintendent (he had the same degree), but never found out for certain why she had been fired. She had wanted to be the first black state supervisor in cosmetology, though this did not come to fruition.
Hattie began looking for work, and was able to find employment with Kelly Air Force Base as a secretary. In the meantime, her friend, Dr. Ruth Ann Bellinger, encouraged her to go to law school. Hattie applied to St. Mary’s University School of Law and was accepted. She managed to work full time throughout school and performed at the top of her class. In 1956, she became the first black woman to graduate from St. Mary’s School of Law. She was the only black female attorney in Bexar County for the next 27 years, earning numerous awards and honors. She passed away on October 17, 2002.
“Well, if you’re determined to do something, you just do it.” – Hattie Elam Briscoe, 1997.
The Hattie Elam Briscoe Papers are housed at UTSA’s Main Campus and can be viewed by appointment in the John Peace Library Special Collections Reading Room. The collection guide for the papers is available online. Additionally, items from the collection have been scanned and can be viewed online.