Before DISD Opens His Namesake Middle School, a Conversation With Zan Holmes

Zan Holmes Jr. arrived in Dallas in 1956 to study theology at SMU. He had been here a week, living in a one-room flat in South Dallas, when he heard a car crash on nearby Central Expressway. An ambulance and police cars beat him to the scene, but the white officers and white medics were just standing there, watching a black man bleed out on the pavement. They were waiting for the black ambulance, which was operated by a funeral home, to carry him to the hospital, but the man died before it came. It's not that the first responders wanted to watch a black man die, they just weren't allowed to transport him in a white ambulance.

It's a story Holmes has told countless times, since it so neatly encapsulates the city as he found it in the mid-1950s.

"We were all bound up by an ugly thing called racism," he says.

Dallas was deeply segregated, legally, physically and culturally. Nowhere was this manifested more painfully than in the school system, which was separate but gave little pretense of being equal.

Holmes sought to change that, at first as part of the broader civil rights movement, then in a more focused way. His wife was a school teacher, so he knew what the system looked like from within. For his second degree from SMU's Perkins School of Theology, he wrote a thesis on Emmett Conrad, who in 1967 became first African-American member of the Dallas school board.

His full immersion into Dallas' educational system came in the 1970s, when Judge William Taylor appointed Holmes to lead the Tri-Ethnic Commission, a 15-member coalition of blacks, whites and Hispanics that helped steer the thorny desegregation process.

"I've just been there," Holmes said. "I've always been a student of education and been engaged in the struggle to have equality of education."

During his 28-year tenure as pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, he had numerous parishioners elected to the school board and oversaw an outreach program that monitored its business. He was just as attentive to the students.

"As pastor of St. Luke's over 28 years, I literally have reviewed the report cards of all of my students," he said.

He would call the kids in on a Saturday, look over their grades, then have them set goals for next time. He would read their names as the St. Luke's honor roll for mention during the next day's service.

In 2009, the school board he has watched so closely over the decades approved naming a middle school in Holmes' honor. Trustee Carla Ranger made the recommendation after the Oak Cliff campus was approved as part of the 2008 bond package. He's a rare leader whose influence expands across disciplines: religion, politics, civil rights, you name it, and Holmes was a force.

"He is eminently deserving of this honor, as he has served our community for decades so honorably and so well," Ranger said.

When he first heard about it, Holmes wasn't so sure.

"I didn't campaign for it, didn't ask for it, but I didn't have the humility to refuse it," he said.

The school opens Monday, with a ribbon cutting ceremony slated for October. Holmes, who splits his time between Dallas and Los Angeles with his second wife and the 6-year-old great-grandaughter they're raising, will be there.

"When I think about this school, I'm not confused," he said. "It's not all about me, it's about the students. Very clear that it's about helping students reach their God-given potential."

Things have improved immeasurably since 1956, but that's still not happening to the degree that it should in DISD. There's still an achievement gap that needs to be closed, and Holmes at the moment doesn't see the cohesiveness that helped end segregation.

"Today I do not see that kind of coalition building, that kind of unity around the problem, and I think that ... when we work together, form coalitions, and have our destinies tied together, that's when we make our best progress."

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson