News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 14, 2013

Historical perspective: Babe Holland: advocate for equality

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Wherever Terre Haute native William Sylvester Holland roamed, he made an impact.

At Booker T. Washington Elementary School, Wiley High School and Indiana State Normal (now Indiana State University), he was an outstanding student and excelled in baseball and track.

Students and teachers throughout the Wabash Valley referred to him as “Babe.”

At Jack Yates High School in Houston, Texas, which opened as the city’s “second colored high school” in 1926, Holland quickly earned a reputation as a superior teacher and an exceptional football, basketball and track coach.

During his fourth year at the school, his football squad won the 1930 Texas Negro High School football championship and his track teams won several area titles.

But, as this column asserted several years ago, Holland made his greatest impact after he was appointed to succeed James D. Ryan as principal at Jack Yates in 1941.

A recent issue of “Houston History,” a slick quarterly which documents the heritage of metropolitan Houston, recounted in some detail Holland’s crusade to secure equivalent facilities, equipment and books for black students.

“William S. Holland: A Mighty Lion at Yates High School,” by Houston History managing editor Debbie Z. Harwell, describes how Holland’s administrative skills “set the tone for administrative success throughout the community.”

Holland arrived in Texas in 1927 with a letter of introduction from Indiana State athletic director Birch Bayh, Sr. He was hired by Edison E. Oberholtzer, superintendent of the Houston schools and founder and first president of the University of Houston.

A native of Patricksburg in Owen County, Ind., Oberholtzer graduated from Clay City High School in 1895 and Indiana State Normal in 1910.

Holland was appointed assistant principal before succeeding James D. Ryan, Jack Yates High School’s first principal, in 1941.

Holland served as principal until 1974, becoming the longest tenured principal in Houston Independent School District (HISD) history.

During his tenure as administrator the U.S. was engaged in a multitude of significant events affecting civil rights and segregation. During this era, Holland repeatedly emphasized to his students how difficult the real world was going to be:

“You are going to have to be twice as good and work twice as hard” in order to accomplish goals. “We can prepare you,” he asserted in talks to the student body, “but you have to be serious about getting prepared.”

Holland set an example for the Jack Yates faculty. The entire staff expected every student to succeed. Failure was not an option. “Professor Holland” did not hesitate to go to a student’s home to tell parents that their child was not getting the job done.

The third child of George W. and Alcinda Holland, Babe was born March 2, 1904 at 1109 S. 17th St. in Terre Haute. His father worked at the U.S. Post Office. Older sister Lois and older brother Arthur became teachers in the Terre Haute Public Schools. By the time Babe enrolled in high school, the Holland family resided at 919 S. 17th St.

In 1921, he won the sectional title in the 220-yard high hurdles in school-record time. At Indiana State he was a hurdler and a sprinter, setting the school record at 100- yards in 10.1 seconds and participating in the decathlon. Babe was the starting left fielder on the Indiana State baseball team, sometimes playing both sports on the same day.

Upon earning an undergraduate degree in 1925, Holland matriculated to Tennessee State College for graduate work. After taking the job at Jack Yates, Babe returned to Terre Haute, where his parents still resided, during the summers of 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1933 and earned at master’s degree at Indiana State Teachers College in 1933.

His thesis was “A Study of the Negro Teaching Personnel in Houston, Texas.”

In 1958, Jack Yates High School—originally intended to accommodate 1600 students in grades seven through 12—officially moved from 2610 Elgin St. to a new building at 3703 Sampson St. The student body had reached 2,200. The much-improved and much-larger facility was viewed as a reward for Holland’s persistent agitation for equality. There was no issue too small or too large for him to embrace.

However, as punishment for Holland’s activism, the HISD board did not retain him as principal of the school where he had worked for 31 years but replaced him with Dr. John Codwell, principal of Jack Yates’ arch rival, Phillis (sic) Wheatley High School.

“Mr. Holland was controversial because he spoke out about what he thought was best for his students,” a former Jack Yates student told Hawley. “It made no difference to whom he was speaking. He did not bite his tongue about what was right and wrong.” Holland was named principal of new James D. Ryan Middle School, situated in the old Jack Yates High School building. He had been demoted.

A petition with 3,635 constituent signatures unsuccessfully implored the school board to reconsider its decision. Some people wanted to bomb the new school but Holland called for calm, acknowledging that the board had the right to reassign him.

Nearly every Jack Yates student expressed disappointment that the man who had worked so hard for equal facilities and equipment was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The results were devastating.

“It killed school spirit,” the Rev. Donald Dickson, a member of the Class of 1958, asserted. Traditions vanished. The morale and character of the school begin to degrade.

“Yates has never been the same since,” the Rev. Dickson said.

Babe Holland retired in 1974 after spending 47 years with the HISD. In retirement, he was elected to the school board. In 1979, William S. Holland Middle School at 1600 Gelhorn St. was opened.

Holland died July 22, 1981, at age 77, and is interred at Houston Memorial Gardens. Daughter Edith Holland Nealy and son William Holland survive. The William S. Holland Memorial Scholarship Fund was launched to benefit Jack Yates High School.