IRWIN R. HOLMES, PIONEER



Irwin R. Holmes, Jr. is a pioneer in so many ways. Throughout his life, he has been a leader, an innovator, and a pathfinder. Nurtured and supported in his home, his neighborhood, and at his schools, Holmes was quoted in an interview with ESPN.com, “Even in the days of segregation during the 1950s, my mother tried her best to convince me that I was as good as anybody.”

That lesson proved to be important to the fortitude, the resilience, and the courage of this young man, who used tennis and academics to bring about change within North Carolina State University and the entire Atlantic Coast Conference.

Holmes won the North Carolina High School Athletic Conference Singles Championship and the Doubles Championship with LaVerne Harper in 1956. He was ranked third in the nation among the American Tennis Association (ATA) junior tennis players and finished 2nd in the 1956 championships.

After the 1954 Brown v Board Supreme Court decision, and after a similar 1955 court decision that forced the Consolidated University of North Carolina to accept black undergraduate students, Irwin Holmes was among the first four black students to become students to enroll as first year students at NC State University. He decided to major in electrical engineering, because an innovative teacher at the all-black Hillside High School in Durham had prepped a cohort of gifted students for success in this field.

His athletic prowess was soon discovered during the required college physical education classes. Even though he had to endure several cultural and racial
obstacles, Holmes soon found his way onto the Wolfpack indoor track team and the tennis team. In doing so, Irwin Holmes became the pioneer again. He desegregated those NC State teams and, thus, became the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first black athlete. After concentrating solely on tennis, Holmes later became the first black letterman in any sport at NC State and in the ACC. By his senior tennis season, Holmes had become the first black athlete to serve as a co-captain of an ACC varsity team.

Perhaps, much more importantly than his tennis and other athletic participation, it should be noted that, while enduring several instances of discrimination and outright racism, Irwin Holmes exhibited profound perseverance and academic prowess. He earned the distinction of being inducted into the engineering honor society as a senior student. He was among the small number of engineering students to graduate in four years. Thus, in the spring of 1960, Holmes became the first black student to receive an undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University.

Soon after, Holmes received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University and had a long and distinguished career at RCA and IBM.

Irwin Holmes has continued to inspire and contribute to the success of those students and athletes who have come behind him at NC State, in his home community of Durham, NC, and throughout the United States.

He often speaks to gatherings of tennis enthusiasts and to followers of African American history. He was a principal panelist at a recent program “The Legacy of African Americans and Tennis in the Triangle.” This panel was held at the historic North Carolina Central University. This discussion helped to create a great deal of public interest in the August 2019 NC Highway Marker honoring the Algonquin Tennis Club in Durham.

In 2018, his alma mater, NC State University renamed the University College Commons for the pioneering scholar-athlete, Irwin R. Holmes, Jr.

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