A physician from McComb, Verner Smith Holmes was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning in 1956. During his twenty-four years on the board, Holmes consistently opposed efforts to use higher education for purposes that were purely political or white supremacist. Holmes faced criticism for those efforts but was the only person ever appointed to serve two terms.
Holmes was born on 10 July 1909 in Walthall County. He attended Mississippi College and the University of Mississippi before earning a medical degree from Tulane University. He served in the US Army’s Medical Corps from 1942 to 1945 and then returned to his home state and began practicing as an otolaryngologist in McComb.
After his appointment to the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, Holmes opposed white supremacists’ efforts to defy the federal government and prevent the integration of the University of Mississippi and other universities. He was one of the few board members to urge compliance with federal court rulings requiring desegregation and was the only member to vote against the board’s September 1962 decision to transfer authority for dealing with the issue of integrating the University of Mississippi to Gov. Ross Barnett. When the board finally realized that the full force of the federal government stood behind the desegregation effort and voted unanimously to enroll James Meredith, Holmes was excoriated for the position he had held throughout the controversy.
Other issues of race and reputation were important to Holmes. He voted to allow sports teams at Mississippi universities to play in athletic events that involved African American athletes. In response, opponents burned a cross at a hunting lodge Holmes used on the Bogue Chitto River. Rejecting the speaker bans some universities instituted during controversies of the 1950s and 1960s, he also spoke up for the right of colleges and universities to invite whatever speakers they wanted to their campuses.
Holmes was an important influence in the development of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, which opened the Verner Smith Holmes Learning Resource Center in 1982. Holmes died in 2000.
- Find a Grave website, www.findagrave.com
- Verner Smith Holmes Papers, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi; Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (July 2000)
- David Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)