North Carolina State University on Thursday honored the first black student to receive an undergraduate degree from the school. The community, meanwhile, grappled with a reminder of racial tension that still exists in the country.
Durham native Irwin Holmes graduated from NC State with an electrical engineering degree in 1960. A tennis player, he also became the first black athlete to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, according to the university.
“For Irwin to come here as a student, the Supreme Court had to say we had to let him in,” said NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson.
Woodson met Holmes in 2010 at his 50th reunion and wanted to find a way to honor his legacy. The university’s Board of Trustees voted in September to rename the University College Commons building as Holmes Hall. Hundreds of people gathered for the unveiling Thursday.
“It’s a special honor, something that I could never have imagined that anyone would think I was qualified to receive,” Holmes said. “I mean, we’ve got thousands of undergraduate minority students here. Thousands. When we were here, there were four of us.”
From Holmes Hall, you can see where he used to play tennis when he attended the university.
Despite his accomplishments at NC State, Holmes said when he went to school he was simply focused on making it from year to the next.
“But, I wasn’t hardly interested in anything about legacies. America was a different place then,” he said. “We’re still way ahead of where we were in 1960.”
Hours before the ceremony began, people came to campus Thursday morning to discover fliers that had been posted. “It’s okay to be white,” they read.
NC State officials say university police are monitoring the situation.
According to the Associated Press, the phrase on the fliers has been linked to white nationalist groups and has appeared in locations around the world.
“Clearly that doesn’t reflect our values, but that’s just another example that as a country we still have work to do,” Woodson said.
Dreyson Conyers, who is studying biochemistry at NC State, was frustrated to see that the fliers had been posted.
“Renaming the building after someone like that is very inspiring for someone like me. I think that’s a great thing, but for you to be putting up signs like that, that’s kind of disrespectful,” he said.