Saluting a pioneer with an honor well deserved

Published 10:21 am Monday, October 29, 2018

He’s not as famous as the Greensboro Four who staged the Woolworth’s sit-in that launched the modern civil rights movement, but he owns his own special space in North Carolina history.

In a year that’s seen contentiousness in North Carolina at our institutions of higher learning such as the placement of a monument to Confederate veterans at UNC, or the renaming of an ECU residence hall, comes news of a different kind of honorarium.

On Nov. 1, NC State will rename its College Commons student services building Holmes Hall in tribute to Durham native Irwin Holmes, the university’s first African American graduate.

In 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Frasier v. the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina that African Americans had a legal right to attend schools within the UNC system. Holmes exercised this right and in 1956 was one of the first four African American students to enroll at State.

And Holmes was a pioneer at State in more ways than attending engineering classes. He was also one of the first black athletes to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

A graduate of Durham’s Hillside High School, Holmes admitted he wanted to follow his parents and attend NC Central University (nee, North Carolina College) and become a doctor, but in ‘56 he, along with Ed Carson, Manuel Crockett, and Walter Holmes (no relation) enrolled at the Raleigh campus.

Finding accommodations first with a black family nearby, it was three weeks before the freshmen moved into a dorm on campus.

“In 1957, everything was an issue,” explained Holmes, now 79, and still living in Durham, “because we were doing something totally new and nobody knew what to expect.”

Holmes said he encountered little hostility among his fellow students.

“State was very good about trying to make things right and very subtle about it,” he said.

The four black students set about making history, inside and outside the classroom. Three would become athletes, leading N.C. State to integrate the ACC. Holmes and Crockett ran in a track meet as the first black students to participate in an ACC event.

But Holmes soon left track behind and concentrated on tennis, becoming the first African-American to co-captain a team and win a varsity letter. His red varsity letter-sweater now hangs in a museum case at nearby Reynolds Coliseum.

Holmes credits his upbringing for his perseverance. While knowing that things wouldn’t be easy, he looked to his role models: his parents. Both the elder Holmes’ were college graduates who had excelled, including his father who was an All-American football player and valedictorian of his class at NCCU.

“I had strong parents, very successful parents, who in their ways had come from small beginnings (and) been very successful,” Holmes said. “And they taught me that nothing was too big, and so that’s the way I went after everything.”

That spirit continued in his engineering career, which included projects on color TV, a radar system in Alaska, and early explorations of the personal computer. He later went to work for RCA as an engineer before moving back to the Tarheel state in 1979 and where he retired from IBM at Research Triangle in 1988. Along the way he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering; met his wife of 54 years, Meredythe; and raised three children, who have now given him several grandchildren.

Like most pioneers, Holmes admits that his college experience in those days wasn’t perfect. But he does believe that there were more positive than negative reactions to events during his time at State. He says he had professors who not only helped him navigate difficult courses but also made sure he and his three other black classmates were treated fairly.

No less than NCSU Chancellor Dr. Randy Woodson went to Holmes’ house to tell him personally about the building renaming. Holmes Hall, ironically, will be located in the shadow of the NCSU tennis courts, another place on campus where the pioneer made a mark, attaining co-captaincy of the Wolfpack tennis team his senior year, 1959-60.

“Every student who comes into State is going to have some relationship with that building because of what’s there, if not once but several times during their college career,” Holmes says. “That’s special; and I thought it was special,” Holmes said, “because I thought it honored NC State as much as it honored me.”


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.