In 1955, three black undergraduate students sued for and won the right to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Frasier v. the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina. The decision applied to the entire Consolidated University of North Carolina school system and meant that African-Americans now had the legal right to attend universities previously closed to them.
That gave Irwin Holmes the right to go to North Carolina State University; and in 1956, he exercised it. The legal right, however, didn't make for an easy passage for teenagers confronted by racist acts and surrounded by symbols of segregation.
Holmes graduated third in his Durham, NC, Hillside High School class and enrolled at NC State as an electrical engineering major. As part of a required physical education course, every student had to take a physical test. The students were divided into three skill levels, with the top level reserved for athletes. The vertical jump and the standing broad jump were two of the standards used to determine the level at which students would be placed, and Holmes had the highest scores for both. That impressed the track coach, who offered him a spot on the track team to run the quarter-mile.
However, Holmes, who had been ranked as high as the No. 2 African-American tennis player in the country in high school, joined the tennis team, instead, becoming NC State's first African-American athlete. Later that year, he integrated the track team, too, but competed in that sport for only one semester so he could play tennis exclusively. He was the tennis team's co-captain in his senior year.
The times back then bred feelings of inferiority in many African-Americans, including Holmes. In an interview with ESPN.com, he said his mother tried her best to convince him he was as good as anybody, but there were simply too many signs around him telling him otherwise. Holmes said he didn't have a conversation with a white peer until his senior year in high school, and that one lasted less than five minutes. There were "colored only" signs at almost every public facility, segregating the water fountains, waiting rooms and building entrances. It had a not-so-subtle way of undermining Holmes' confidence.
"You had to feel inferior to some degree," Holmes said. "The old South was two civilizations living in the same place. Back in my head somewhere, I wasn't sure I was able to compete [academically] until I met so many dumb people. Brains have nothing to do with race. The dumb white people were just as dumb as the dumb black people."
Tennis, too, was overwhelmingly segregated during the time Holmes competed. African-Americans could only compete in tournaments sponsored by the American Tennis Association, the association for African-American tennis players. At one point in his career, Holmes finished as the runner-up at a national ATA tournament, which made him eligible for a qualifier position at the U.S. Amateurs, now known as the U.S. Open. He declined that opportunity because he believed his skills weren't as developed as those of other players. He greatly admires Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe for pioneering the integration of such all-white tournaments.
In spite of many supportive white students, including his teammates, Holmes said it was lonely on campus. In his four years at NC State, he didn't have another African-American student in his class and he didn't compete against another African-American tennis player.
His teammates did their best to stop the segregated South from crushing him. Once, on a drive back from a competition against North Carolina at Chapel Hill in which Holmes had been the only NC State player to win a match, the team stopped to eat at a highway diner. After the team waited longer than expected for its orders, the restaurant manager approached the head coach and said he wouldn't serve the team unless Holmes ate outside. When the coach told the players, they immediately left with the burgers cooking on the grill.
In Holmes' very first class as a freshman, he said a professor refused to teach an African-American student and forced the university to find someone else for the class.
Holmes recalled another professor who publicly criticized him for his grades, although he said his marks had been excellent. That changed after a white student stood up to the professor for him. At the end of the year, when each student had the option to drop one grade, Holmes decided to write completely off-topic on his final quiz. He received an A. He knew then that the professor had not bothered to read his work the entire semester.
"You had to feel inferior to some degree. The old South was two civilizations living in the same place. Back in my head somewhere, I wasn't sure I was able to compete [academically] until I met so many dumb people. Brains have nothing to do with race. The dumb white people were just as dumb as the dumb black people."
-- Irwin Holmes
Holmes said his dorm was so small that it had to combine with another hall to field a team for the intramural touch football league on campus. He and his roommate, an all-state football player, were the only two African-American players on the combined dorm team. In their first game, the team lost; neither Holmes nor his roommate entered the game. Someone who was unhappy with the situation then went to the intramural office, Holmes said, and saw to it that the schedule was redone and the team was split into two, forcing Holmes' dorm to seek out nonathletes to have enough players for competitions.
Holmes said the series of events made his teammates play harder, and they finished second overall in intramurals that year.
"The racism riled up not only the blacks in the dorm, but also the whites," Holmes said. "Before then, most of the guys were friendly when they ran into you, but they were not actively involved until they got riled up."
Holmes said he was knocked down hard in one game, and the referees didn't call a penalty. Two of his teammates told him they would take care of it themselves. After the next play, the man who had hit Holmes was carried off the field with a broken leg. It was clear his teammates would defend Holmes.
In 1960, Holmes became the first African-American student to receive an undergraduate degree from NC State. He then earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University and worked for IBM from 1969 to 1988. Holmes is currently semiretired while serving as chief financial officer for his wife's staffing company.
In the spring of 2006, Holmes was invited back to campus to speak to a group of about 300 African-American students who were being recognized for academic achievement. Holmes told them this: "Integrating the schools -- the classroom -- was far more significant than integrating the playing fields."
Holmes did both. That same year, the NC State Alumni Association acknowledged his contributions of 50 years earlier when it named a room in the alumni building after him.
A circle had been closed. Holmes arrived at North Carolina State as the first African-American student and returned to speak to a large gathering of academically gifted African-American students. When he walked the campus as a student, all the roads and buildings were named after white people. Now, there is a room named after him.
We surely have a long way to go on the issue of race in America, but Irwin Holmes is a measure of how far we have come.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Horacio Ruiz, a DeVos graduate assistant, contributed to this article.