The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Gilbert Holmes and Emma Penny Holmes, educators who shaped the lives of countless local children, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.
Gilbert Holmes, the son of a minister who had been born a slave, was born in Du Quoin in 1898. After the deaths of his parents, Gilbert worked as a laborer in an ice factory to help support his grandmother and brother, but by the late 1920s, he had enrolled at Southern Illinois Normal University (now SIUC). Gilbert studied to become a teacher and began his career in Coulterville’s public schools. In 1933, he was hired to teach at the Vernon School in Sparta. Staffed by black teachers and administrators, the school was opened in 1912 as part of an effort by Sparta’s African-American community to foster a positive educational environment for the town’s black children.
The same year that the Vernon School was opened, Emma Ophelia Penny was born in Sparta. The youngest of a large family, Emma was the daughter of a coal miner. She was educated in Sparta, and in 1930 she started studies at Southern Illinois Normal University. Both Gilbert and Emma demonstrated a talent for leadership at the university. Each served as president of the Dunbar Society, an organization founded in 1925 “in order to create a support network and provide entertainment opportunities” for African-American students at the university. Emma, who was a talented singer and musician, was also an active member of the Roland Hayes Club, a choral society for black students.
Gilbert and Emma married in Sparta in 1934. As their family expanded to include three children, Gilbert, John, and Beverly, both Gilbert and Emma also continued to be devoted to education. Emma began teaching at the Vernon School in 1936, alongside Gilbert, who became the school’s principal. They both worked at the school until Sparta closed the building in 1963 in an effort to fully integrate the district. After the school was shuttered, Gilbert chose to take on a new challenge, working as a counselor at SIU, but Emma continued teaching in the Sparta district until her retirement. Over her 30-year career, she taught in several district buildings, including the Vernon School, the Lincoln School, and Sparta Township School.
Gilbert and Emma worked tirelessly to establish and support professional networks that would improve the opportunities for local educators, often breaking barriers in the process. In 1957, Gilbert became the first African-American president of the Randolph County Educational Association. Emma served as president of the Beta Delta chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a society that promoting the professional growth of women in education. Throughout their lives, Gilbert and Emma especially championed their fellow black educators, keenly aware of the difference that they could make to their communities by challenging students to reach their potential.
Gilbert and Emma’s love for music also formed a central part of their educational lives. Gilbert played the violin and directed church choirs, while Emma gave piano lessons, taught music classes, and directed school choral groups. In 1971, she became a founding committee member of the Sparta Community Chorus.
Both Gilbert and Emma lived long, full lives, and after their deaths, the citizens of Sparta paid tribute to the educators by dedicating the Gilbert Holmes Community Park and establishing the Gilbert and Emma Holmes Scholarship Fund. Sparta is also completing a park on the site of the former Vernon School, which will once again be a place where the musical voices of Sparta’s children, the greatest legacy of the Holmes family, will be heard as they learn, play, and grow.