The annual awards ceremony takes place around Martin Luther King Jr. Day to recognize community leaders making a difference.
As Vernita Woods-Holmes steps back onto the Texas Tech University campus, that's the word that comes to mind.
“I'm trying to think, when was the last time I was on campus just to see it,” she said, “just to be around other educators and go into the Student Union Building, reminiscing?”
Woods-Holmes is not on campus for a stroll down memory lane, though. She is one of eight retired Lubbock ISD principals being honored during the Lunch with Legends that the Texas Tech Office of Institutional Diversity hosts around each Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate community leaders.
“I am pleased and excited about the recognition,” Woods-Holmes said. “It's just a blessing.”
Moments like this are almost surreal to Woods-Holmes, because as a young woman, she never even considered she would become a Texas Tech student.
She spent her entire education, grades 1 to 12, enrolled in a segregated school for black students in Lubbock called Dunbar School.
“With my upbringing, my dad went to college – but he didn't get to graduate – and my mother didn't go,” Woods-Holmes said. “But education was their number-one priority for my brother and me.”
With the importance of education ingrained in her, after Woods-Holmes graduated from Dunbar in the late 1950s, she decided to attend a historically black college in Austin called Huston-Tillotson University.
“The main professions for minority female students during that time was either nursing or teaching,” Woods-Holmes said. “I knew that I didn't want to be a nurse, and I had family members that were teachers. So, I chose that path.”
It was not until the 1960s that desegregation began to take place on the Texas Tech campus – an effort that became apparent to Woods-Holmes after former owner and editor of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Charles A. Guy, placed a phone call to her father.
“He was trying to get black students involved on campus,” Woods-Holmes said, “so he asked my dad if I would want to go to Texas Tech.”
While she was already on track to graduate from Huston-Tillotson University, Woods-Holmes knew she wanted to pursue a master's degree.
So, she returned to her Lubbock roots and became a Red Raider in the 1970s.
“It was outstanding, to say the least, especially for someone like me who still lives here in East Lubbock,” Woods-Holmes said. “Getting the opportunity to go was amazing.”
Woods-Holmes became a part-time student since she was already teaching at the time. She attended classes about two days each week.
During that time, she recalls several Texas Tech professors who encouraged and cared for her.
“They were just very nice to me,” Woods-Holmes said. “And the other black students in my classes, we became friends if we weren't already and did stuff together.”
By 1974, Woods-Holmes obtained her master's degree in education from Texas Tech. And just as she dreamed, she began to move up in education.
“I've taught every elementary grade, and I not only taught the children, but I had a relationship with their parents,” she said. “I just felt it was important to get to know a little bit about the children and where they're coming from.”
After several years of teaching at Lubbock schools, Woods-Holmes became a principal at Hunt Elementary, now known as Margaret Talkington School for Young Women Leaders (which she helped establish).
But no matter what educator role she held, Woods-Holmes always knew firsthand the opportunity she had to be an influence.
“With schools being segregated like they were, the teachers that I had to look up to were African American teachers, and they did very well,” Woods-Holmes said. “They encouraged me, so I looked forward and wanted to go as far as I could.”
Building a Legacy
And Woods-Holmes did, in fact, go far. After a 34-year career in education, including 13 years as a principal, Woods-Holmes retired in 1999.
“A young man came up to me at Sams the other day, and I didn't know him from Adam, but he recognized me and said I taught him in third grade,” she said. “It's a blessing when I see former students, and they remind me what we used to do or what I used to say. I feel as though I get a lot of compliments when I see them.”
Woods-Holmes went on to serve the Lubbock community through many outlets: the LISD school board for 16 years, the United Way Board of Directors, the Early Learning Centers of Lubbock, the YWCA of Lubbock, the Roots Historical Arts Council, the Talkington Advisory Board and the advisory council for Guadalupe-Parkway Neighborhood Centers.
Her community service has earned her countless awards over the years, including the Rita Harmon Service Award, and an honor during the Texas Tech vs. Oklahoma State men's basketball game in 2013 for her many contributions in the field of education.
Ten years after that halftime honor, Woods-Holmes is being recognized by her alma mater again during the Lunch for Legends because of her commitment to education – one of the key components of the civil rights era that the Office of Institutional Diversity wants to highlight this year.
“We said, ‘Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to pull together individuals who were key in educating and on the front lines of championing that cause,'” said Cory Powell, the director of the Office of Institutional Diversity. “I firmly believe that educators, particularly teachers of grade school students, are some of the most underrecognized, underpaid heroes in our community.”
Powell first met Woods-Holmes while she was a principal. He developed respect for her as he served alongside her on various community boards.
“Ms. Holmes, and those like her who persevere through obstacles in spite of negatives and still come out positive, give hope to people like myself and to future generations,” Powell said. “We have the opportunity to learn from their experiences, and to think about how many young minds they helped shape.”
Continuing a Legacy
Mikayla Holmes is one of the many young minds Woods-Holmes helped shape. Not in the classroom, but as her granddaughter.
“My grandma taught me from a young age that I can be whoever I want to be,” Mikayla said. “She would encourage me to do what I want to do, and to speak my mind and not hold back.”
While Mikayla has held Woods-Holmes' advice “close to her heart” for almost 25 years now, she admits she did not always realize how much adversity her grandmother faced.
“As I've grown up, I've seen how much she's had to break through and fight for,” she said.
So, when Mikayla received her Texas Tech acceptance package in the mail, Woods-Holmes was beyond proud of the milestone.
“She was like, ‘You're going to do amazing things there, you're my granddaughter and I don't expect anything different,'” Mikayla said.
In 2020, Mikayla graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism. While she did not get to walk the stage because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her family threw a graduation celebration for her with Woods-Holmes right by her side.
“I had a great experience at Texas Tech for my education,” Mikayla said. “I also have this amazing connection with my grandma, because it's kind of like a full-circle moment.”
While Mikayla also received her teaching certificate, she currently works at KLBK News in Lubbock and has her sights set on an on-air reporter or anchor position one day – an achievement that does not seem as far away as it once did.
“I think overall, news and Lubbock has come a long way and is starting to change,” she said. “One of the people I work with who's been a great help to me is Matt Stell, who is a black man and KLBK's evening anchor. Then there's Sasha Wilson, another black anchor who hosts the morning news. That just gives me the feeling and encouragement that I can do this.”
Woods-Holmes loves to see that kind of spirit in her granddaughter. She has long lived by the motto, “If they can do it, so can I,” and has taught that mindset in her classrooms and beyond.
She has faith the next generations of young leaders will also live by this motto and step up, which comforts her after she has mostly stepped down due to a stroke she suffered in November 2021.
“With what's going on in the world today, I think people will realize what things need to be changed,” she said. “I tell people, and I tell my children and grandchildren, ‘It's not what you say, it's what you do.'”
And both Powell and Mikala agree that while they live in a much-changed community than the one where Woods-Holmes was raised, there is certainly more work to be done.
“I think we can never get comfortable until there's no longer an issue,” Powell said. “We live in a time where people ask, ‘Why do we need MLK Day? Why do we need Black History Month? Why do we need Hispanic Heritage Month? Why do we need to celebrate this?' So, while we certainly celebrate our progress, we're not there yet.
“My hope is that future generations will have even better experiences and will see themselves reflected in in all aspects of our community. So whether it's a person who's differently-abled, a person who has learning disabilities, a person of different ethnicity, or a person of different nationality, we all see ourselves as part of this community and we all know that we are beloved.”