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Richard E. Holmes

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Title: Richard E. Holmes  
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Subject: Mississippi State University, Richard Holmes, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong
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Richard E. Holmes

Richard Holmes (b. Chicago, Feb. 17, 1944) is medical doctor and one of the five young black Mississippians who pioneered the effort to desegregate the major universities of Mississippi as part of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968). His was by far the most peaceful and least noticed of the efforts which had begun with the ultimately tragic efforts of Clyde Kennard beginning in 1956 to enter what now is the University of Southern Mississippi[1]

Holmes’s strikingly peaceful and almost unnoticed enrollment in July, 1965, at previously segregated Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, came five years after the notorious false imprisonment of Clyde Kennard ended his struggle with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the administration of president William David McCain to integrate the University of Southern Mississippi, and came less than three years after the fatal battle between southern segregationists and federal forces attendant on the forced enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in Oxford against the wishes of Governor Ross Barnett and the white political establishment of Mississippi.[2]

Born to Horace and Minnie Holmes in the North at Chicago on Feb. 17, 1944, Richard Holmes was 18 months old when he was taken to the South by his mother to a new life in Mississippi. He and three older brothers came to live in Starkville, Mississippi, with Eliza Hunter, a family friend Holmes would consider his "grandmother."[1][2] Mrs. Hunter promoted in him education, hard work, honesty, and religion, and taught that “being poor and black was no reason for failure."[1][2]

Before Mrs. Hunter died in 1956 at the age of 86, she arranged for a home for Holmes with Dr. Douglas Conner, who was a local Starkville physician, community leader and civil rights activist. Conner became his godfather and life mentor, encouraging Holmes to stay in school and study hard.[1][2]

When Holmes graduated in 1963 from Starkville's black-only Henderson High School,[1] Dr. Conner sent him to Wiley College where Holmes took pre-med courses during the two years he spent there.[1] Wiley is a private, historically black, liberal arts college in Marshall, Texas, which was active in the civil rights movement in Texas. Conciliatory civil rights leaders James L. Farmer, Sr., and James L. Farmer, Jr.(who was director of CORE when Holmes was at Wiley) had been intimately connected with Wiley. Thus, as a youth with Conner, Holmes imbibed the philosophy of persistent but conservative, gradual expansion of civil rights. Then, as a student at Wiley, he had this reinforced with a need for racial reconciliation.[1][2]

With this background, Holmes faced the obvious question of why he was off studying at Wiley in Texas when there was a perfectly good university in his home town where many of his family and friends still lived. And he was an almost ideal candidate for integrating Mississippi State, although he must have had some concern for his safety in view of the Kennard (falsely imprisoned and dying) and even Meredith (placed in danger of his life) experiences.

The idea of Holmes enrolling as the first black student at Mississippi State probably had several origins: himself, perhaps Dr. Conner, the local NAACP, President Dr. Dean W. Colvard and members of the university administration, and friends and mentors at Wiley.

The idea may well not have originated with him. Dr. Conner may have developed the idea at an earlier time, or developed it with Dr. Colvard after the Meredith incident. The NAACP had sponsored such efforts before and would do so again two months later in the case of Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong at the University of Southern Mississippi – but there is no indication that they were directly involved in this case.[2]

In the higher education community across Mississippi, there were liberals (in the Mississippi context) and even surrendered segregationist, such as President William David McCain at the University of Southern Mississippi, who now sought the best way to peacefully and quietly get this inevitable process of racial integration behind them. Probably more people in the administration of Mississippi State had this goal than at other state universities. The Colvard administration was certainly moderate if not liberal, for its time and place. In 1963, Dr. Colvard had been both liberal and courageous enough to send his regional champion basketball team to the integrated NCAA championships, rejecting the wishes of the white state political establishment. In 1965, he and his staff and faculty were definitely seeking a path to peaceful integration.[2][3]

One of the editors of this article, who was on campus summer and fall of 1965, remembers hearing reports that “the administration” was recruiting the son of a local black doctor to be the first black student.[2]

The effort was certainly well planned and coordinated. Holmes enrolled at the time of year (July) when the fewest people would be on campus, and when the state press and politicians would be least attentive. Holmes gave his enrollment a temporary and less serious appearance when he announced that he had come only for the one summer semester and would then return to Wiley. Finally, Holmes’ quiet and courteous manner combined with his cooperative, inoffensive, and almost supplicatory tone went far to prevent any potential objections.[1] He still says "I didn't set out to be an integrationist."[2][3][4]

He enrolled and began classes in September 1965. He remembers that the first day: ‘there were no catcalls, no racial slurs,…It was quiet and serene. Nothing happened; there was just curiosity and disbelief." He did discover that the white students refused to sit at the same table with him in the library and student cafeteria.[5]

There was occasional heckling, but it did not seem to be personal. “Some befriended me and treated me with dignity and respect. Many just ignored me." Many, conceivably most, students were not even aware of what was going on. A Mexican-American transfer student from Tucson, Arizona, was one of these. When she arrived at the campus Baptist Student Union for a Thanksgiving service in November, 1965, she mentioned to the minister that she had seen another Mexican on campus whom she might invite to the BSU, describing Holmes. "Oh no!" he replied, "that's the Negro student who's integrating us. But, I think he's Methodist.""[2]

After a successful summer semester in terms of few problems, the Colvard administration encouraged him to return for the fall semester, which he did. Also, Dr. Conner[2] and other black members of the community asked him to stay, and there was another young black man was considering enrollment, but only if Holmes stayed. Dr. Dean W. Colvard and the faculty were supportive.[4] The student body, overall, treated him well, although a small number of people spoke unkindly to him without causing major problems.[2][3][5]

He lived alone in a twin-bed room in the new and (comparatively) luxurious Evans Hall residence facility which was normally reserved for graduate students. He did struggle sometimes, because he felt isolated.[1][6]

Most of his friends were attending college somewhere else, and people at school couldn't have an open friendship with him because of lingering pressure of Mississippi “closed society” on even liberal white students.[4]

He missed the extracurricular activities he had been involved in. At Wiley he had been active in Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and the football program. He sometimes got nostalgic, and wished he could have continued that.[1][2]

For the next two years, he worked diligently toward a bachelor's degree in liberal arts. Then, needing an income, Holmes left full-time student status in 1967 to teach school nearby in Alabama. Continuing on part-time status with night and correspondence courses, he graduated with a B.A. in 1969, and (after two-years in the US Army), a pre-med master's in microbiology and nutrition in 1973. He followed this with an M.D. from Michigan State University in 1977. After that, he took several internships in Alabama and set up his residency in Ohio.[1][2]

He and wife Judie, a former school teacher from nearby Columbus, Mississippi, have a daughter, Rikeda, son, Richard Jr.[1]

While building a successful 23 year career as an emergency room doctor in Birmingham, Alabama, he maintained loyalty and close interest in his alma mater.[1][2]

In 1991, Mississippi State recognized Holmes's campus achievements and medical career by naming the university's cultural diversity center in his honor.[4]

Then, he was recruited back to Mississippi State in 2003 by Dr. Robert Collins to serve on the John C. Longest Student Health Center as a staff physician.[1][6]

The gray-haired and always soft-spoken Holmes quickly became a favorite and valued member of the Mississippi State community. Mississippi State President Charles Lee noted that “The university gained from the courage and dignity (Dr. Holmes) demonstrated in 1965,…Today's students are benefiting and learning from the professionalism and compassion that are evident in his practice as a campus physician….He has been, and remains, an inspiration, a role model and a mentor."[1]

Holmes has donated his personal and professional papers to his alma mater’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and he and Judie endowed a minority scholarship fund that also carries his name. In 2003 he gave the spring commencement speech, noting that he had the "most impressive and vivid memory of my time here as a student is the fact that the MSU student body, and the MSU family as a whole, treated me with dignity and respect." In 2005 he became a member of the Wiley College Board of Trustees.[5][6][7]

He was named Mississippi State’s 2006 National Alumnus of the Year.[8] In 2007 the Mississippi State Legislature officially recognized and commended him for his career and activities at Mississippi State.[9]


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