Dr. Emory Hestus Holmes, World War II veteran, social scientist, professor, and California civil rights leader, was born on November 17, 1924 in Birmingham, Alabama to David H. and Dora Catherine Holmes. He attended segregated schools in Alabama and, at the age of 17, joined the U.S. Army. During World War II he helped construct the Burma Road from India across northern Burma into China and was wounded in combat. Decorated for his wartime valor, Holmes returned to the United States where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate education at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Like thousands of other African Americans, he headed West after World War II. Armed with a master’s in psychology, he joined a cohort of black professionals who staffed positions in California’s expansive Cold War military-industrial complex. In 1955 he took a position at RAND, a policy think-tank based in Santa Monica, California.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Holmes, his wife, and their three children moved to Pacoima, a neighborhood in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Pacoima was a historically multiethnic space where African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans found homes, as they were segregated away from the rest of the San Fernando Valley.
The Holmes family, however, attempted to move into the section of Pacoima where whites still dominated. They faced a variety of forms of racial harassment that included vandalism, property destruction, and a cross burning. Agitators also hired undertakers to go to the Holmes family home with orders to pick up dead bodies in an attempt to intimidate and frighten the family. Someone also painted “Black cancer here. Don’t let it spread!” on the walls of the Holmes’s house.
Undeterred by this violence, Dr. Holmes filed a civil rights lawsuit against his neighbors in 1960 and won. Following this success, Dr. Holmes helped establish the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council, which helped integrate the Valley, the site of some of Los Angeles’s most strident segregation. He was an active leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League of Southern California.
After his time at RAND, Dr. Holmes earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles and embarked on a career in academia. He served as a professor and later a dean at California State University, Dominguez Hills during the 1970s. He then moved to northern California where he took a position as director of student services at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Holmes passed away on April 6, 1995 in the San Rafael, California at the age of 70. He was married to Bobbie Lee Holmes and the two of them had three children: Denise, Evangeline, and Emory II.