When Irwin Holmes Jr. arrived as a freshman at N.C. State University in the fall of 1956, living on campus was out of the question.
Holmes, of Durham, was one of the first four African-American students to enroll at State that year. His parents agreed that living in a dorm was just too risky. So they found a black family who lived about a mile from campus and rented a room for Irwin. It was near the highway, in case he needed to make a quick exit from Raleigh.
“In 1957, everything was an issue,” explained Holmes, now 79, “because we were doing something totally new and nobody knew what to expect.”
Despite the worry and tension, Holmes and his black classmates felt safe enough to move into the second floor of Watauga Hall on campus a few months later. They had a home at State.
Soon, N.C. State’s landscape will have a permanent marker of Holmes’ journey as the first African-American to earn an undergraduate degree there. On Nov. 1, a student services building known as University College Commons will be rededicated as Holmes Hall. The renaming was approved by the Board of Trustees last month.
Across the country, universities grappling with their sometimes painful histories are renaming buildings and removing Confederate monuments. Some are memorializing new features on their campuses to recognize the accomplishments of African-Americans. In North Carolina, Duke University named its main quad in 2016 for Julian Abele, the black architect credited with designing the Gothic buildings there. This month, UNC Asheville renamed an academic building Mullen & James to recognize long-serving black faculty.
At N.C. State, Holmes graduated in 1960 with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to a career at RCA and several other companies before ultimately retiring at IBM in the Triangle in 1988.
In a recent interview in the Durham home he shares with his wife of 54 years, Meredythe, Holmes explained that he ended up at State by circumstance.
He had wanted to go to a historically black university.
His parents were proud N.C. Central University graduates, and Holmes would have gone there had the university had an engineering program. As a student at Hillside High School, Holmes originally had ambitions of becoming a doctor until he joined an engineering club and found another passion. He was accepted at Howard University but there was no money at the time to offer him a scholarship. Meanwhile, news of his admission to N.C. State had made the local newspaper, and he was being congratulated everywhere he went.
Despite a last-minute scholarship offer from Howard, Holmes entered N.C. State in 1956, along with three other black students — Ed Carson, Manuel Crockett and Walter Holmes (no relation).
Holmes said he encountered little hostility among his fellow students. Unbeknownst to him, though, one of his math teachers had complained that she didn’t want to teach a black student. She was transferred quietly and a new teacher was brought in. Holmes only learned the reason for the switch later, when he overheard some professors talking about it.
“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 Atlantic Coast Conference. 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 letter sweater now hangs in a museum case at Reynolds Coliseum.
Along with all the recognition, there were difficult times, especially when he had to leave the safety of the campus.
“What happens, if you sit there all week and you never go off campus, sometimes you forget,” he said. “Now, remember, we grew up in the South, and we knew all the rules on how to operate. Our parents taught us what we could and couldn’t do to stay out of trouble. It wasn’t a big deal for us, we just would get on campus and forget.”
One of those times, the tennis team was on its way back from a match in Chapel Hill and stopped at a diner on U.S. 15-501. The team sat down and ordered food. An employee emerged and said that Holmes couldn’t be served. Holmes was going to sit in the car and wait, until his teammates had another idea.
“The players said, ‘Coach, if they can’t serve Irwin, they’re not serving us. We’re not eating,’” Holmes recalled. “So they had all this food prepared for these kids to eat. (The players) walked out. We went back to campus and we all got food money.”
At Holmes’ very first match as a freshman, the opposing team’s coach was shocked to encounter a black player. “The poor man was totally shocked and did not know what to do,” Holmes said. “He solved it very well — he forfeited all the matches that I was playing so his white player did not have to play this black player, not knowing what his boss would have said if he had.”
Holmes, the top-ranked player on the freshman team, told his coach, John Kenfield Jr.: “If they keep that up, I’ll be undefeated for the season.”
The racism of the times altered the team’s entire schedule. An unwritten rule for South Carolina schools was that they could not play integrated teams while in the state, Holmes said.
“They refused to play us, because they couldn’t play with me on the team. Mr. Kenfield said, ‘Well, if you can’t play with Irwin on the team, we can’t come. If we play, Irwin plays.’”
An agreement was reached, whereby South Carolina teams would always come to Raleigh for the matches — a disappointment to Holmes because he liked to travel to away games.
Holmes credits his upbringing for his perseverance. He knew he was a pioneer and that things wouldn’t be easy. He looked to his role models, both 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.
“One thing I discovered very early was America still lived with the belief that we weren’t that smart,” Holmes said. “So they would put us on jobs that were the easiest jobs intellectually. The worst jobs. The fun jobs are the challenging ones and I was determined that I was never going to be on one of those.”
When Holmes moved back to Durham in 1979, he and his wife built a home with a tennis court beside it. They had three children, two of whom played tennis in high school.
Though his mobility is limited following a stroke, Holmes has gone back to State to give talks, attend alumni events and meet with the tennis team.
He counts himself fortunate to have had a coach, “a very special guy,” who stood up for him at every turn, and an influential professor, William Stevenson Jr., who helped him get his first job at RCA. When it came time for the team to vote on captains in 1959-60, Coach Kenfield pulled the white players aside, telling them it was Holmes’ right to be a co-captain as the senior on the team, even though there were better players who were younger. The players voted accordingly.
Chancellor Randy Woodson first met Holmes at a 50th anniversary event for the Class of 1960. “I walked into the room and was standing next to Irwin and he said, ‘You didn’t expect to see me here, did you?’”
Woodson recently went to Holmes’ house to tell him about the building renaming. The College of Engineering had requested it, but there were no engineering buildings that weren’t already named or earmarked for donors’ names. A campus committee recommended the University Commons building, which opened about a decade ago. It’s a place where most freshmen go for advising and other services.
“We were looking for a place where Irwin’s story and his experience could be experienced by a large number of people,” Woodson said.
As the university prepares for the renaming, another effort is under way to tell the full history of the individuals whose names are on buildings. Woodson has enlisted the help of public history students at State to begin the research to reveal the stories of those names, including ties white supremacy.
“These are people that played a role in the founding of this university,” Woodson said. “They had good and they had bad, from people’s perspectives, and we need to do a good job of telling all of that.”
On Nov. 1, the story will be about Holmes’ experience at State, and the pride he brought to the university, Woodson said.
Holmes is not one to be speechless, Woodson said, but he was pretty close on the day he got the news about Holmes Hall.
“I thought it was special,” Holmes said, “because I thought it honored N.C. State as much as me.”