On Thursday, hundreds gathered on the N.C. State campus to honor Irwin Holmes Jr. by renaming the University College Commons to "Holmes Hall."
Holmes, in turn, gave N.C. State credit for all it's done in the field of race relations, "In doing this today, not only are they honoring me, but I feel that they are honoring themselves in a big big way."
As the first African-American graduate of N.C. State University in 1960, Holmes was also, along with Manuel Crockett, the first black athlete to compete in ACC athletics, running a 600m dash against UNC in February of 1957. A quarter miler by trade, he was gassed by the finish line.
"The extra 200 yards was a long way for me and that was my last 600-yard race," said Holmes. Track though was just a tool to stay fit for his real passion - tennis.
Holmes was a four-year member of the Pack's team and became the first black athlete to earn a varsity letter and the first to captain an ACC varsity team. His first match was a win by forfeit after the opposing coach refused to allow his player to compete against a black opponent.
Holmes said he owes a great debt of gratitude to his tennis coach at N.C. State, John Kenfield Jr. He relayed why to NCSU historian Tim Peeler:
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."
Wolfpack baseball coach Elliott Avent made sure he was on hand for Thursday's dedication. "I grew up in the deep South. I told him in the early 70s, late 60s I played on an all-black baseball team one time and I know what my teammates went through at that time and I know what they had to deal with and I saw it and I felt it. And then to know that he did it, maybe twenty years earlier?"
As a Durham native, Holmes ultimately became a decorated graduate in electrical engineering. He was one of just four black students on campus initially, and a classmate of N.C. State mega-donor Wendell Murphy.
"While we never became confidantes, he was widely recognized all over the campus. Everybody knew who he was and he was liked by everybody that I know of, he really was," Murphy recalled.
Jobs followed Holmes as he helped develop the first-ever color television and worked on computing projects that helped put a man in space and engineer the beginning of the internet.
He credited specific teachers at Hillside, specific professors at N.C. State and indeed the school itself for helping him build that legacy. For the NCSU Board of Trustees, the decision to rename the building was a no-brainer. Trustee and former Wolfpack football player Dewayne Washington explained why doing it now held extra meaning.
"We're just so excited. The fact that he's still living and he's able to reap the benefits of this and see a day like this. It's just truly a humbling day for NC State," he said.
A proud Wolfpacker to this day, Holmes said he never would've accomplished all that he did without the education he received in Raleigh.
"I may have contributed something to N.C. State, but N.C. State has contributed a whole lot to me."
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