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Holmes Hall Honors Groundbreaking Graduate, Athlete

Recent photo of Irwin Holmes in his letterman's jacket. Play Video
NC State renames University College Commons in honor of pioneering student-athlete Irwin Holmes.

Could he — would he — make it in a newly integrated college?

Could he — would he — do something that had never been done by an African-American student-athlete?

Durham native Irwin Holmes wasn’t sure. But his mother had no doubts.

“I go to this all-white college and I have no idea how I’m going to compete in this new environment,” Holmes says. “Is it really true that blacks aren’t as smart as whites, and I’m not going to do well? Or is it like my mom told me, that I’m as good as anybody?

“When I got there, I found out my mom was more right than the rest of the world.”

In the fall of 1956 Holmes and three other pioneering students became NC State’s first African-American undergraduates, changing the once all-white face of the institution when they enrolled in what was then called the School of Engineering. In their time on campus, the students broke one barrier after another by participating in the tennis, soccer, and indoor track and field teams, and in the marching band.

Graduation photo of Holmes in cap and gown.
Holmes earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1960.

After completing a distinguished academic and varsity athletic career at NC State, Holmes became the university’s first black graduate when he accepted his degree in electrical engineering during commencement exercises at Reynolds Coliseum on May 29, 1960. Two of Holmes’ African-American classmates graduated from NC State several years later, and the third graduated from North Carolina Central.

“Out of the 220 freshmen that entered electrical engineering with me, 65 of us graduated in four years,” says Holmes, who earned induction into engineering honor society Eta Kappa Nu as a senior. “What that proved to me was that it wasn’t color that mattered; it was intellect. That made standing on that stage that day extra special … because it proved my mom was right in thinking who I was and who I could be.”

When NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson first met Irwin Holmes in 2010 at the 50th reunion of the 1960 class, he was moved by Holmes’ perseverance and dedication to overcoming obstacles and breaking new ground in both academics and athletics. Not only was Holmes the school’s first black graduate; he was also the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first black athlete, first black varsity letter winner and first black co-captain of a varsity team. Ever since that meeting, Woodson felt strongly that Holmes’ legacy needed to be honored.

In September 2018, the NC State Board of Trustees approved changing the name of University College Commons to Holmes Hall. This week, as NC State begins its celebration of Diversity Education Week, Woodson makes the name change public. The building will be formally rededicated during a celebration with Holmes and his family at 1 p.m. on Nov. 1, during Red and White Week.

“Irwin Holmes not only fulfilled his dreams at NC State; he boldly broke barriers that would forever change this university and the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Woodson says. “He was, and will always remain, a role model that helped drive needed social and cultural change at NC State, in North Carolina and far beyond.

“We are proud to honor Irwin Holmes in perpetuity with this naming.”

Irwin Holmes . . . boldly broke barriers that would forever change this university and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The three-story, 21,500-square-foot building was built in 2007. It is home to the Exploratory Studies program, Study Abroad, four classrooms and University Housing offices for Tucker, Owen, Turlington and Alexander residence halls.

It is located adjacent to Wellness and Recreation’s tennis courts at Carmichael Gym, where Holmes spent so many hours practicing and playing for the Wolfpack when the varsity tennis courts were near that location.

Last month, Woodson and Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Brian Sischo visited Holmes at his Durham home to share the news, catching Holmes a little off guard.

“I did not anticipate that they would name a building after me,” says Holmes, who is already the namesake of the Irwin Holmes and Black Alumni Society Conference Room on Centennial Campus. “I thought maybe a scholarship or something. What I appreciate is not that this is a special moment for me, but that it is a special moment for the university because a long time ago they did something special and they have been doing special things as they relate to race throughout all these years.

“By doing all of that, they earned the honor of honoring themselves.”

While Holmes spent most of his sports career as a tennis player, he and fellow African-American freshman Manuel Crockett of Raleigh’s Ligon High School actually integrated ACC athletics in a freshman indoor track meet against North Carolina in what is now known as Dorton Arena. They both ran in the 600-yard dash, becoming the first African-Americans to participate in an ACC-sponsored event.

“We didn’t perceive it to be that big a deal at the time,” Holmes says. “We were probably worried about passing a math exam or something. We thought someday when we were old men maybe someone would make a big deal about it, but we didn’t make a big deal about it.

“We did it for the same purpose as everyone else: just to have fun.”

Later that spring, Holmes joined the tennis team, while fellow African-American freshman Walter Holmes (no relation) joined the Wolfpack soccer team and the NC State marching band.

Holmes on tennis court in the 1950s.
Holmes, a nationally recognized junior tennis player while at Hillside High School, joined the NC State team in 1957.

Irwin Holmes admits that, like most pioneers, he did not have a perfect college experience. He believes, however, that there were many honorable reactions to potentially negative events during his NC State career.

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. One such mentor — electrical engineering professor William D. Stevenson Jr., an early developer of corporate partnerships for Research Triangle Park — recommended Holmes for his first job, with RCA in Camden, New Jersey.

Another, tennis coach John Kenfield Jr., happily welcomed Holmes, a nationally recognized junior tennis player while at Hillside High School, onto his team of all walk-ons when Holmes showed an interest in joining the freshman team in the spring of 1957.

“Coach Kenfield was a special man,” Holmes says of the Wolfpack’s tennis coach from 1949 to 1967. “He must have been raised special. He was ready for all the crazy things that happened after that.”

Many of those “crazy things” would be unfathomable in today’s world.

In his first freshman match, Holmes earned a forfeit victory because his opponent’s coach didn’t want his player to face a black opponent.

“Hey, this is great,” Holmes told Kenfield. “If they keep doing that, I’ll be undefeated.”

Throughout his career, Holmes wasn’t allowed to compete in South Carolina, which had an unwritten rule barring interracial athletic competition. All matches the Wolfpack played against the University of South Carolina and Clemson were held in North Carolina.

“Coach Kenfield arranged to have all those matches here at NC State because he said if you can’t play us with Irwin on the team, we’re not coming down there,” Holmes said. “It was upsetting to me, because like most athletes, I enjoyed traveling to different places and I never got to go to South Carolina.

“So, just to add a little salt, any time I played someone from down there, I just destroyed them.”

That sentiment of including Holmes in all team activities carried over to his teammates. Once, when coming home from a match at UNC, the team stopped for a meal at a diner outside Chapel Hill. Before serving the team, the diner’s owner told Kenfield he wouldn’t serve Holmes.

“Coach went and told the other team members,” Holmes says, “and they said, ‘If they are not going to serve Irwin, they are not going to serve any of us. We’ll get in the cars and go home.’ And that’s what they did.

“Remember, this was coming from roughly 10 white peers, all of whom had been raised in the Deep South and in traditional Southern homes. For them to feel that good about me was not a racial statement. It was them saying, ‘You are wronging our friend and therefore we are not going to participate in it.’

“That was very special to me.”

When Holmes was elected co-captain of the tennis team in 1960, he was included in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” feature for becoming the first African-American captain of an ACC varsity team, a true honor for someone who spent the little money he earned selling Durham newspapers to pay for his annual subscription to the sports magazine.

Holmes went on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia. He met his wife, Meredythe, an elementary school teacher with degrees in early childhood education, while he was working for RCA. During their 54-year marriage, they’ve raised three children and now have three grandchildren. Holmes had several jobs as an engineer before returning to his hometown of Durham in 1979 to work for IBM until his retirement in 1988.

Now 79, Holmes appreciates what the school is doing, less for himself than for the generations that will follow.

“Every student who comes into State is going to have some relationship with that building because of what is there, if not once but several times during their college career,” Holmes says. “That’s special.

“And it is located next to where we spent so much time playing and practicing tennis. It’s almost like that building was built just for that purpose. I know it wasn’t, but it makes this a special honor.”

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  1. I happened across this story while signing in to the NC State website as I attended an Industry meeting on campus. Such a great story and I came away thinking this is a story that should be shared with a national news outlet so that it could be shared across the country, especially in the face of the recent talk from some of the leaders of our country. These are the stories we need to put more focus on and I am really glad to have come across it. You should be very proud of your University! Thanks for sharing!

  2. What an amazing story in these current times. Congratulations to Mr. Holmes, his efforts and strides that paved the way. It is true of the challenges we face in various majors and nothing is more gratifying than walking across that stage at NC State! Screaming NC State, Go Wolfpack…you make me proud to be apart.

  3. Congratulations to all of the courageous African-American men and women who made my admission to NC State as a graduate student possible, in 2018. Coming full circle, my father Zack R. Davis IV, a graduate of NCCU in 1959 and Hall of Fame inductee in 2010, shared fond memories about competing against the stellar Mr. Holmes back in the day. Good stuff.

  4. Great news and a sincere “Thanks” for all those involved in making this honor a reality. On a side note, my father and Mr. Holmes were at Hillside HS at the same time and I was also a graduate a few years (23) later. All three of us were coached by hall of fame coach Russell Blunt.

  5. Good job by the University leadership team. It seems approiate to change the name to Holmes Hall. I graduated in 1957 and do not recall the admissions being a big deal on campus although it was in fact a big deal. Congrats to all.

  6. Thank you Chancellor Woodson, Provost Arden and the Board of Trustees! I applaud this tribute to Mr. Irwin Holmes! This is an important university milestone! In 2006, I co-chaired the university’s year-long 50th Anniversary Celebration of our first African American undergraduate students at NC State. I hope that beyond the naming, there is a plaque in the building that educates all NC State students and visitors on the legacy of Irwin Holmes. I worked at NC State for 19 years and every time I called, even when Mr. Holmes would be on the east coast vacationing he took my calls and was willing to do whatever he could. This is an event that I would not miss! Irwin Holmes and three freshman classmates Manuel Crockett, Edward Carson and Walter Holmes, built the legacy for so many.

  7. Not that I expected my Alma mater to give me a birthday gift today, but reading Mr. Holmes’ story this morning certainly tops any material gifts I might receive. It’s frustrating to think I never heard about Mr. Holmes during my time as a student, but this story about our fellow alum and university epitomizes why “our hearts ever hold you, NC State.”

  8. Thank you Chancellor and Board of Trustees for recognizing Irwin Holmes with this well deserved honor. He is a prime example of “Think and Do the Extraordinary”

  9. What a great story. It is interesting to note that at the University of Georgia they also have a building named Holmes after one of their first African American students, Hamilton Holmes. The building is named Holmes-Hunter Hall and sits right next to the iconic Arch that is part of the university’s identity. Parallel universes indeed!

  10. What an amazing story and a fitting honor for this trailblazer. Also proud of my Alma Mater for being so forward thinking, especially during a time where it was certainly not easy to do so. Hard to believe it was not really that long ago. A moving story…thanks for sharing.

  11. This is an incredible story. I feel so proud to be an alum of this university that cultivated growth and change within myself. Irwin’ story is brave and inspiring and deserves to be honored and remembered.

  12. A wonderful story❣️ I attended NCSU as an African American female in the 80s after transferring from UNC. I felt the warmth and acceptance the moment I stepped onto State’s campus. I’m glad State allowed Mr. Holmes this opportunity and his professors and classmates welcomed and supported him. He accomplished his goal and achieved so much more. Thank you NCSU for honoring this trailblazer who succeeded against the odds.

  13. I am so proud that my school is honoring Mr. Holmes. Thank you so much for paving the way for others. What a positive story. Congratulations.

  14. What an inspiring story made even better that the honor is being given while Mr. Holmes is still with us. The diversity at NCSU was one factor in my decision to attend the school and it was a factor for my son as well. It distinguishes the university since Mr. Holmes blazed that path and continues to be a force for good in NC and the world, where its graduates spread its message of welcome.

  15. I am very happy the university is recognizing Mr. Holmes’ racial barrier-breaking accomplishments of “Firsts” for NC State and the Atlantic Coast Conference. 1960 was not that long ago. Although prejudice remains in society, we take so much for granted these days about access to public places and institutions. It took courage for Irwin to apply to NC State and even more to attend. It also took some courage for the Admissions Department to be blind to his skin color, admitting him on his scholastic merits. The Athletic Department also showed some courage in recognizing Irwin’s athletic ability as an accomplished juniors tennis player.

    Renaming University College Commons to Holmes Hall is the right thing to do. Congratulations to Mr. Holmes for this well-deserved recognition.

  16. Congratulations to a true trail blazer and super human being. Although we were not at Hillside High School at the same time, it should be noted that the mantra of excellence in academics, athletics, work and life existed there for all students, faculty, and staff. It is great to see excellence exhibited in this man’s life, and to be so honored. Great work Irwin!!

  17. Mr. Holmes earned and deserves this honor, and I am very glad that the University is taking this step to rename University College Commons to Holmes Hall.

  18. This is a very unique and positive account of that time period! As a member of the Class of ’59, I don’t recall knowing Irwin Holmes, who was a Freshman when I was a Sophomore, but I do remember that several minority students began appearing on campus at that time. During those years, we did have many students of color from around-the-world, and I greatly enjoyed meeting and socializing with them, and learning much about their cultures. As I recall, in 1959 there was an announcement in The Technician that there were about 5,500 students, of whom 55 were coeds. And I clearly recall that within two different National Honorary Organizations to which I belonged, when we wanted to accept some very worthy women as members, we were informed by the National Offices — That is not allowed! One even threatened to withdraw our Charter; however, in that case we accepted a woman as a “local” Honorary Member. Through mailings I received from one of those organizations in recent years, I noticed that they now have many women as members, and officers! Fortunately, times have changed greatly for everyone!

  19. A great decision to honor Mr. Irwin Holmes … in high respect! Changing the name of University College Commons to HOLMES HALL is an excellent step forward for our first black American graduate. I was a sophomore when he entered NCSU as a freshman. I did not know him then, nor have I ever met him, but this story about him, in my personal opinion, supports this action by the NCSU Board of Trustees and I am even more proud that I, too, am an NCSU graduate. Congratulations to Mr. Holmes and to the NCSU Board of Trustees for their well-made decision!

  20. What a great story and the blessing is that Mr. Holmes is alive and is aware of the honor bestowed to him. This is a positive story that needs to be shared with all.

  21. I am so proud of NCSU for honoring Mr. Holmes in such a meaningful and prominent manner that will be a lasting reminder of his accomplishments and contributions. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story of courage and perseverance, and to Mr. Holmes for being a pioneer who paved the way for all of us to follow!

  22. You are so awesome uncle Irwin! I’m sending this article to my girlfriend Cie, whom you”ve met, and also was an excellent tennis player at NC state. She followed your footsteps 🙂 love ya

    Kimmy K

    1. Congratulations again to Irwin!! The building naming is most deserved. I graduated in 1958 and 1960 in Nuclear Engineering because Electrical Engineering was too difficult.
      Irwin was certainly a trailblazer in both school and athletics with an outstanding persona to match.
      So proud of him and plan to be at the dedication on 1 November.

  23. This speaks volumes! So proud of Holmes, his teammates,and NC State. Long overdue recognition! Jack Daniels, BS textile chemistry ‘72, MS textile chemistry, ‘81

  24. This is a wonderful way to honor Irwin Holmes! I was at NC State when there were few women and few African Americans but was not the first. It took a lot of courage for Irwin to break the barrier! Congratulations to him!

  25. This is a great story, but I’m ashamed to admit that I’m just now hearing about this man. It’s a great way to honor his accomplishments and his contributions to both the school and the ACC. Makes me proud, once again, to be an alumnus of NC State.

  26. Thank you very much for this very interesting story about Irwin. I received my BS degree in 1959, so my undergraduate tenure overlapped part of his. I regret not getting to know him. Being a biology student, I did not interact very much with engineer students .He is a very special person and a great representative of our university.

  27. What a great story … wouldn’t it be great if all children had a mother with such confidence in their child(ren) to encourage them so?

  28. I’m so excited to hear about the man that God used to effect change in this wonderful university. Because of this historical event, many years later I was allowed to have an opportunity to attend as a student-athlete (basketball) and graduate. Many thanks to Mr. Holmes and the other young men who paved the way for the rest of us!

  29. I remember Irwin as a colleague and fellow member of our soccer team. Not only was he a good athlete, but he was a good person – quiet, focused and determined to succeed. And he has. I wish him the best in retirement and am glad he and three others had the determination to “tread” into the NCState community as it was breaking the color barrier back then. A good move and we are all better because of what Irwin did.

  30. The story of Mr. Irwin Holmes is truly inspiring. Of course his Mom was right! And now, the dedication of a building on the NC State University campus in honor of Mr. Holmes and his accomplishments is a very befitting honor.

  31. Thank you so much Mr. Holmes for being that trailblazer, who opened door that were most often closed. The struggle is ever present, however your dedication and above all your perseverance, is the torch that directs the path for generations to come.

  32. I entered graduate school at NCSU in 1957. I have no memories of any major public outrage about the school’s very appropriate decision to diversify the student body. Considering that time in our nations history the relative smooth transition says a lot about NCSU and North Carolina. I know that there were individual incidents, like those mentioned, where we did not respond in an honorable manner and continue to fall short in that respect. But, the University is just doing things right to continue emphasizing it’s dedication to the goal of diversity.
    We have a granddaughter and grandson who grew up in NY City who visited NCSU and they both said they impressed by the diverse student body. Unfortunately, they chose to go to schools closer to home. Keep up the good work.

  33. Wonderful! So proud of Mr. Holmes and NCSU! And proud of all those who didn’t let race come between Mr. Holmes and his goals. Kudos!

  34. What a great story and timeless message of hope, inspiration and opportunity. Once again the common denominator of education and sports is a major source that human interaction will reveal that we have more in common than indifference as people. This brave step and embracing support serves as the key example and catalyst for opening the doors of opportunity for past, present and future success.

  35. I remember Irwin very well. He and I were in the NC State band together. He sat beside me in the concert band and I was fascinated by his presence. Being a shy boy from little town of Bryson City in the Great Smoky mountains of North Carolina, I felt just as out of place as he did. I wanted to get to know him but could never seem to engage him in a meaningful conversation. I knew his presence was historic and felt fortunate to have known him a bit. I have always wondered what happened to him and am delighted to hear his story.

  36. What an incredible story. Thank you for paving the way and congratulations on leaving a lasting and wonderful legacy, Mr. Holmes.

    Detria Moore c/o 1997