Irwin Holmes had the early makings of an all-around star. He graduated third in his class at Hillside High School in 1956 at the age of 15. In addition to his academic prowess, Holmes was also a champion on the tennis court.
He grew up practicing at the Algonquin Tennis Club where he honed his craft by playing against future greats like Arthur Ashe. Holmes became the No. 2 African American high school player in the country during a time when most blacks were not allowed on the tennis court. Holmes would go on to make history in many other ways: He was one of the first African Americans accepted to North Carolina State University and the first to graduate. He is credited with helping integrate ACC sports as co-captain of NC State’s tennis team.
Alongside all of these firsts, Holmes and his family were also overlooked and underutilized. As a kid, Holmes watched as his mother, an English major, was unable to secure a job teaching her preferred subject. She took the only one available and put her creativity to work as an arts and crafts teacher. Despite his father’s expertise, education and ambition, no one below the Mason-Dixon Line would hire a black chemistry teacher. Holmes watched his father turn his relationships and reputation into a career running the recreation centers and programs for blacks in Durham.
After graduating from NC State, Holmes faced many of the same problems himself. No one would hire a black engineer. So he headed up North where he helped develop technologies including the one that put a man in space and laid the groundwork for the Internet. Holmes would go on to spend nearly 20 years as an engineer with IBM.
In 2018, NC State renamed a building after Holmes in honor of his accomplishments at the university and in his career. Host Frank Stasio talks with Irwin Holmes about his life and legacy.
On his parents’ lives:
[My parents] both finished college. They both were people who liked other people and spent their careers making life better for other people. My dad ended up in Durham as head of parks and rec for black people … And my mom taught in the Durham County Public School system. She was an art teacher.
On his parents’ unrealized potential:
They were an example of what America did when it ignored the contributions that black people could make. And we still have that problem by deliberately putting us in jobs that white people feel comfortable with us being in that are usually far below what we are capable of doing.
On how discrimination was handled by his father’s generation:
Black men in America in those days accepted the way it was in America. [They] did not talk about the fact that the discrimination against them prevented them from doing all the things they could do in life. I never heard either him or his friends ever discuss that … My generation, we complained.
On the role of the Algonquin Tennis club in Durham:
[The Algonquin Tennis club] was put together by members of the upper [class] black community to have a place to congregate for leisure things, but also to develop a tennis program … Some of us kids snuck in when nobody was watching and used that court to learn and taught ourselves how to play.
On the first time he heard about Arthur Ashe:
Arthur’s father was a janitor for some tennis courts in Richmond, Virginia, so Arthur grew up right next to these tennis courts. Somewhere around 6 years old he started playing tennis on these courts. I know that because some Durham people had played in a tournament in Richmond. I heard them talking about this little 6-year-old boy who was out hitting balls on the court almost like a grown man.
On the year he finally got to play Arthur Ashe:
That was the year Arthur did not lose a match to any black male of any age in America. And that was the year I played Arthur. It was the year when Arthur finally got big enough, and his game was unbelievable for his age.
On choosing to attend college at NC State after Howard University ran out of scholarship money:
It had already appeared in all of the major newspapers in North Carolina and half the country that this black student was going to be going to North Carolina State. I got all kinds of people who were happy and let me know how happy they were that I was going. And then I get this opportunity to go to Howard on a [full]scholarship … Even with the scholarship at Howard, I would have ended up paying more than if I went to State.
On staying off campus with another black freshman Walter Holmes:
Since we were doing something nobody had done before at NC State, we didn’t know what to expect from the white community. So the first thing we did was we found us a room next to the highway so we could get out of Raleigh quicker. So we stayed off campus the first year.
On how an opposing college tennis team forfeited a match rather than play a black player:
So we show up to play, and their white coach with his all-white team shows up to play what he expects to be an all-white NC State team. And lo and behold here’s this black person showing up to play against his players. Poor guy did not know what was happening.
On his tennis coach standing up for him:
[Coach John Kenfield] gave them a heads up, but he said under no circumstances would they play NC State where I did not play also.
On helping develop technology that would make way for the Internet:
The government said we have all these computers all over the United States that need to talk to each other directly. And we need a system where they can talk to each other quickly, and we don’t have one. So they asked us to put together this system.
On working to help the next generation of aspiring college students:
I’m trying to increase the number of scholarships available at NC State and working with HBCUs to better their situations. We have a shortage of opportunities for people in our race to develop into all they can be in life.