Contact: Phil Hearn
STARKVILLE, Miss.--Richard Holmes sought no "fanfare" and no "special favors" when he became the first African-American to enroll at Mississippi State University four decades ago.
"I did not come here for fanfare or publicity," the self-effacing young black man from Starkville said in a brief written message he read to members of the press on July 19, 1965, the day of his admission to the historically white institution.
"As a lifelong Mississippian, I am here to study and learn at a high-rated Mississippi university, which happens to be in my hometown," he wrote. "I seek no special favors and I hope that there will be no impediments from any source during my stay here at State."
That was three years after James Meredith's forced entry at another state university in North Mississippi, backed by federal troops, triggered deadly rioting in 1962; and only a year after the state's "long hot summer" of 1964, when three young civil rights workers were murdered in the rural, red-clay hill country of Neshoba County.
Yet, Holmes' peaceful admission for summer classes at Mississippi State caused little more than a blip on the state's racial radar screen. Some 200 whites greeted his campus arrival in quiet resignation at what then was the dirt-floored animal husbandry facility (still the Newell-Grissom Building, but now the wood-floored home of the women's volleyball team).
"There were no catcalls, no racial slurs," recalls Holmes, who was 21 at the time. "It was quiet and serene. Nothing happened; there was just curiosity and disbelief."
One of 10 children born to Horace and Minnie Holmes in Chicago on Feb. 17, 1944, Richard Holmes was 18 months old when he was taken South by his mother to a new life in Mississippi. He and three older brothers were left at the Starkville home of Eliza Hunter, a family friend Holmes would come to know as "grandmother."
"My grandmother was not educated but she believed in education, hard work, honesty, and going to church," said Holmes. "She instilled those values in us boys and taught us not to make excuses--that being poor and black was no reason for failure."
Before she died of breast cancer in 1956 at the age of 86, Eliza Hunter asked Dr. Douglas Conner--a Starkville physician, community leader and civil rights activist--to "take care of my boys." In 1958, at age 14, Holmes moved into the family home of Conner, who became his godfather and a guiding influence of his life.
"It was a godsend, a salvation," Holmes said of his years with the Conner family. "He prodded me to stay in school and keep up my grades. He treated me like a son."
Holmes had graduated in 1963 from Starkville's segregated Henderson High School, where he excelled as a student and played linebacker-guard on the football team. He spent his first two years of undergraduate study at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, before transferring to MSU that summer of 1965.
Living alone in a twin-bed room of MSU's Evans Hall residence facility for the next couple of years, Holmes worked diligently toward a bachelor's degree in liberal arts.
"Even with some occasional heckling, students seemed to follow the rules of engagement, a code of conduct, or whatever you want to call it," Holmes remembers. "They would yell things at me sometimes, but it would never be personal.
"I recognized where they were coming from; this institution had been segregated for 87 years," he said of the land-grant university founded in 1878 and whose first president was
ex-Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee.
"But no one ever spit on me, no one hit me, no one pushed me, no one pulled a prank on me," he said. "No student ever closed a door in my face. Some befriended me and treated me with dignity and respect. Many just ignored me."
Because money was tight, Holmes left MSU in 1967 to teach school in Aliceville, Ala. By taking night and correspondence courses, however, he finally earned his MSU degree in 1969. After a two-year stint in the Army, he returned to MSU and completed a master's degree in microbiology and nutrition in 1973 in preparation for medical school.
Finishing medical school at Michigan State University in 1977, Holmes fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a physician. Later, he carved out a successful 23-year career as an emergency room doctor in Birmingham, Ala. He and wife Judie, a former Columbus school teacher, have a 28-year-old married daughter, Rikeda, and a 21-year-old son, Richard Jr., who is stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany.
In 1991, Mississippi State recognized Holmes's campus achievements and medical career by naming the university's cultural diversity center in his honor. Holmes and Judie later endowed a minority scholarship fund that also carries his name.
The couple moved back to Mississippi in 2003, settling for the present in Columbus, Judie's home town. Holmes returned to his alma mater when Dr. Robert Collins, director of the John C. Longest Student Health Center, hired him to fill a staff physician vacancy.
"The university gained from the courage and dignity he demonstrated in 1965," said MSU President Charles Lee. "Today's students are benefiting and learning from the professionalism and compassion that are evident in his practice as a campus physician."
Now gray-haired, the always soft-spoken Holmes keynoted MSU's 2003 spring commencement. In remarks to his soon-to-be fellow alumni, he noted 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 February of 2004, in conjunction with MSU's observance of Black History Month, the university's first African-American student donated his personal and professional papers to his alma mater.
"Richard Holmes made a great contribution to Mississippi State 40 years ago, and he has been contributing in a variety of ways ever since," said Lee. "He has been, and remains, an inspiration, a role model and a mentor."