With a shared focus on the importance of teaching the children of Randolph County, Gilbert Holmes and Emma Penny Holmes were dedicated to improving the lives of Sparta’s children through the power of education and music.
Born in 1898 in Du Quoin, Gilbert Holmes was the son of Elijah Holmes and his second wife, Cordelia Harris Holmes. Elijah, who was a minister, was born a slave in Georgia; he was emancipated when he was teenager. With his first wife, Sally, Elijah had a large number of children, some of whom were living in the Du Quoin area during Gilbert’s youth. Along with his half-siblings, Gilbert also grew up with a younger brother, Emery. Cordelia’s mother, Emmaline Doan Harris, were also an important presence in Gilbert’s childhood. Emmaline’s support became especially crucial when Gilbert’s parents died in 1917 and 1918. The 1920 census shows Gilbert and Emery living with their eighty-year-old grandmother on North Walnut Street in Du Quoin; Gilbert was working as a laborer in a local ice plant to help support his grandmother and brother.
But in the late 1920s, Gilbert’s life and career plans had shifted in a different direction. By 1927, Gilbert was a student at Southern Illinois Normal University in Carbondale. Now known simply as Southern Illinois University, the institution was primarily a teacher’s college during Gilbert’s time as a student. Black students had been admitted to the university soon after its founding, but many activities and organizations were still segregated when Gilbert arrived on campus. He quickly became a leader, serving as president of the Dunbar Society, an organization founded by African-American students in 1925 “in order to create a support network and provide entertainment opportunities” for black students who enrolled at the university. The society’s name paid tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar, an important African-American novelist, poet, and playwright.
In 1932, the president of the Dunbar Society was a woman who would become a very important part of Gilbert’s life: his future spouse, Emma Ophelia Penny. She was born in January 1912 in Sparta. Her parents, Richard Lewis Penny and Emma James Penny, were each born in Missouri shortly after the end of the Civil War. After moving to Illinois, they married in Randolph County in 1889 and raised ten children in Sparta. Emma’s father and several of her brothers worked in the coal mines near Sparta, but Emma, the youngest member of the family, was destined for a different path. After attending school in Sparta, she began studying at Southern Illinois Normal University in 1930, and her intelligence and musical talent quickly earned her important leadership roles in both the Dunbar Society and the Roland Hayes Club, a choral organization for black students that had been organized in 1928. Emma’s excellence was further recognized with an honor letter; she was singled out for the honor because of her “outstanding activity work” with the Dunbar Society.
As Emma continued her university education, Gilbert had begun working to educate the youth of Randolph County. In 1930, he lived in Coulterville, where he worked as a teacher in the local public school. Three years later, he was hired as a teacher at the Vernon School in Sparta, a unique educational institution in the county. Staffed by black teachers and administrators, the school was opened as part of an effort by Sparta’s African-American community to foster a positive educational environment for the town’s black children. A local newspaper explained that Sparta’s “schools became segregated back in 1912 when Negro residents petitioned the Sparta board of education to open a school for Negro students, and the Vernon School was subsequently built.”
In July 1934, Gilbert and Emma married in Sparta. Their family quickly grew to include three children: Gilbert, John, and Beverly. As the elder Gilbert continued working as a teacher, Emma put her musical talents to good use, giving piano lessons to local children and holding recitals in the family home on Vine Street. In 1936, Emma began her own teaching career, joining Gilbert at the Vernon School. She taught students in the upper elementary grades, including fourth and fifth graders, and focused on English and vocal music. Gilbert’s career was also flourishing; he was named the principal of Vernon School, and he was also active in local educational organizations. He served as an officer of the Sparta Education Association, which was formed in the 1950s. As a prominent person of color in the educational world of the county, he also broke barriers. In 1957, he became the first African-American president of the Randolph County Educational Association.
In 1963, the Sparta school board decided to fully integrate the district by closing the Vernon School, which had by then served the black children of Sparta for more than half a century. The school board president, Leonard Ernsting, told local reporters that the decision was made “to provide better educational facilities and effect economy.” Students and several teachers, including Emma, were transferred to the nearby Lincoln School, which shared cafeteria and gymnasium facilities with the Vernon School. After 30 years working at the Vernon School, Gilbert decided to pursue other opportunities after the district’s consolidation. Following his departure from the Sparta school district, he took on a new challenge, working as a counselor in the Office of Student Work and Financial Assistance at SIU Carbondale, where he had earned a master’s degree in 1958. He retired from that position in 1968 at the age of 70. Gilbert’s affection for his alma mater also led him to serve as an executive board member of the Randolph County chapter of the SIUC Alumni Association.
Although Gilbert sought out other avenues in the world of education, Emma continued to work in the Sparta district until her retirement in 1976. Throughout her thirty-year career, she worked in several district buildings, including the Vernon School, Sparta Lincoln, and Sparta Township School. Students in the elementary and junior high grades benefited from her expertise in English and music. She also directed student choral groups. Upon her retirement, she told the Southern Illinoisan that she looked forward to “flower arranging, gardening, piano playing, and relaxation.”
But dynamic, passionate educators like Gilbert and Emma couldn’t stay on the sidelines for long, even during their retirements. Both continued to enjoy music; Gilbert played the violin and directed church choirs, and Emma continued to provide musical education to the people of Sparta. In 1971, she was one of the founding committee members of the Sparta Community Chorus. Contemporary reports note that the chorus was begun as “a cultural project” to help “benefit the community,” and singers from several area towns, including Sparta, Marissa, Red Bud, Steeleville, and Baldwin, participated in the initial performances. The community chorus continues to entertain residents of the county today.
Emma also continued to support local educators and educational initiatives. In 1970, she joined the local Beta Delta chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a society that promotes the “professional and personal growth of women educators and excellence in education”; she also served as the chapter president. Additionally, she worked to support other women in higher education, joining the Sparta chapter of the American Association of University Women. Emma’s experience in both segregated and integrated educational environments gave her a unique perspective on the challenges and benefits of each situation. While she believed that the decision to integrate Sparta’s schools was ultimately the right call, she continued to advocate for more opportunities for local black educators and students alike. She understood that having positive educational examples was important for African-American students, and in the 1980s, she expressed concerns about “the small number of black teachers serving as role models in predominantly white communities.” Throughout her life, Emma championed her fellow black educators, keenly aware of the difference that they could make to their communities by challenging students to reach their potential.
In 1984, Gilbert and Emma celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with an open house at their home in Sparta. Surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the couple was able to reflect on their long partnership and enjoy time with family and friends. Eight years later, Gilbert passed away at the age of 93; Emma lived for another decade, dying in Springfield in 2002. The long, influential lives of the Holmeses were celebrated by the community of Sparta. The town dedicated the Gilbert Holmes Community Park in his honor, and a scholarship fund in both of their names was opened at Sparta High School, extending their love for education to another generation of Sparta’s citizens.
For years, the fate of the former Vernon School, where Gilbert and Emma Holmes shared so much of their time and expertise, was a much-debated local issue. The building at one point housed a local Western Egyptian Neighborhood Center, which aimed “to employ persons and train them for better jobs in the future.” Later, the National Guard occupied the building. But in the 1990s, much to the dismay of the active Vernon School alumni committee, the building was demolished. Recently, however, Sparta has moved to complete a new park on the site, which will honor the educators and students who once worked and learned at the corner of Church and James Streets. The park is a fitting tribute to educators like Gilbert and Emma, who shared so much of their own time and talents with the children of their community. Just as it was for so many decades, the site of the former Vernon School will once again be a place where the musical voices of Sparta’s children will be heard as they learn, play, and grow.
Gilbert and Emma Holmes were inducted into The Randolph Society in 2018.