Blazing a Path

By Alberta Phillips

When 18-year-old Peggy Joyce Drake arrived at The University of Texas School of Business Administration in 1958 as a junior, she was already a scholar, homecoming queen, and desegregationist.

Those experiences would prepare her for the challenges she would face as a Black woman in a segregated Texas of the 1950s and 1960s, and later with the U.S. military, as the wife of an officer.

But the business school that would present perhaps the toughest challenge in a life journey that took several twists and turns through racial minefields.

After all, Peggy Drake (now Peggy Drake Holland) was among the early Black pioneers who courageously — and intentionally — navigated The University of Texas at Austin, which was born into racial segregation in 1883.

Peggy Drake Holland, BBA ’63, was McCombs’ first Black graduate.

After its founding, it would be 67 years before the university — forced by the U.S. Supreme Court — opened its doors to Black law and graduate students. Black undergraduates had to wait for another Supreme Court decision years later.

Reckoning with that past, UT’s business school, now the McCombs School of Business, is recognizing Peggy Drake Holland’s experiences and honoring her achievement as its first Black graduate. After enrolling in 1958, she graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree.

Now a new student lounge/exhibit space at McCombs bears her name, image, and story. Unveiled at a dedication ceremony on Feb. 22, 2022, the project was initially envisioned by McCombs students from the Black Business Students Association who called for a place where they could feel they belonged, says Leticia Acosta, director of outreach and inclusion for the McCombs undergraduate program office.

Since then, the student lounge has drawn broad support from many McCombs students, McCombs Dean Lillian Mills, and McCombs staff members. They worked as a team to bring it to life.

“When our current students considered whom to name this new space after — a space to provide community, a sense of belonging, and education — it was unanimously decided that Peggy Drake Holland would be the namesake,” Acosta says. “We felt it was important that in this space you learn about the past — and inspire students in the present to be the positive force for change in the future.

“Her story deserved to be told and her legacy honored.”

Peggy Drake Holland was honored at the opening of a space named for her at McCombs. The Peggy Drake Holland Student Lounge, located in Suite 5.130 of the main business school building at 21st Street and Speedway, serves as a space for students, staff, faculty, and the larger community to learn about and be inspired by a key figure in McCombs’ history.

The challenges of being first

Holland’s story embodies the experiences of so many African American students who intentionally braved the harsh but changing sociopolitical winds at UT Austin so that other Black students who followed would have a smoother journey at the state’s premier university. In earning her degree on an almost entirely segregated campus in a city partitioned along racial lines, Holland carved a trail for other Black students to follow in pursuing degrees at one of the nation’s top-ranked business schools.

“Despite a number of unexpected, negative experiences, I continue to believe that the good persons I’ve met and the positive experiences I’ve had at UT greatly outweigh the negatives,” Holland says.

That progress is evident: When Holland enrolled, she didn’t see another Black student at the business school until her second year. Currently, Black students make up 4.7% of McCombs’ undergraduate and graduate enrollment, with 303 out of 6,429 total students.

Her achievement stands as a marker for women of all races and ethnicities. Holland showed that a woman could compete successfully in a then-male-dominated business school during a time when women, especially in the business field, weren’t treated as equals to their male counterparts.

Two “Welcome” brochures, one green and one orange, for the fall 1958 orientation at UT Austin.
“Welcome” pamphlets were mailed to Holland and other students along with registration information. Tuition and fees totaled $50.75 the fall semester of 1958. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

For Holland and other early Black students, the journey was a steep climb, fraught with numerous microaggressions from white students and faculty members.

“During the time I spent at The University of Texas as a student, I experienced the greatest barrage of racism of my young life,” Holland recalls. “Having been taught at home to have an open mind — and no preconceived opinions nor judgment of individuals based on skin color — I was greatly disappointed by being met with such unprovoked, unabashed, and unabated racism in such an academically esteemed institution.”

Amid such episodes, there were acts of kindness and respect from allies — Black and white — who helped her and other Black students steer through rough waters.

“Despite a number of unexpected, negative experiences, I continue to believe that the good persons I’ve met and the positive experiences I’ve had at UT greatly outweigh the negatives,” she says.

UT fights to keep out Black students

Desegregation didn’t come easily for UT. For decades, the university fought to maintain its separate and unequal system. Rather than admit Heman Sweatt to its prestigious law school in 1946, UT Austin hastily erected a separate law school for Black students in 1947 in Austin to comply with the courts. The school never opened. After his 1950 U.S. Supreme Court victory, Sweatt, along with five other African Americans, became the first Black students to enroll in UT’s law school.

Picture of the first UT Austin campus building circa 1885.
The first building of the University of Texas at Austin, called “Old Main,” pictured in the 1880s. The university was established two years earlier as an institution for white Texans. | Credit: Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Even after the courts forced UT to enroll Black students, the university remained segregated in other ways: Black students had to live in segregated housing, including old military barracks and off-campus dorms and co-ops. With few exceptions, they could not eat in restaurants on the Drag (the student-oriented business district on Guadalupe Street adjacent to campus) and were prohibited from participating in most student organizations. Social isolation was the norm for UT’s Black students, whose numbers were kept small via policies and practices aimed at keeping Black enrollment small, despite court decisions.

Against that backdrop, Holland and other Black students, enrolling in the 1950s — and especially those who earned degrees — were students who could “bend with the blows” without being broken, says Edmund “Ted” Gordon, UT associate professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department and vice provost for diversity.

Headshot of George Allen circa 1939.
In 1939, George L. Allen tried to register to clear the way for the NAACP to sue UT, which prohibited Black students from enrolling. In response, UT created an out-of-state scholarship program for Black students. | Credit: The Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society

“It’s not enough to be strong,” says Gordon, who as director for Commemorative and Contextualization Projects, leads UT Austin’s efforts to reimagine Painter Hall, the East Mall, and campus public history.

“You also had to have the strength, grace, and class to be able to survive in those contexts. And that is what people say about Peggy Drake Holland.”

Herman Marrion Sweat works next to a woman at a desk.
In 1950, Herman Marion Sweatt enrolled in the UT School of Law after winning his case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling that struck down separate law schools and graduate study for Black students | Credit: ND-50–283–04, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Valedictorian and homecoming queen

Holland’s journey began in San Antonio, where she was born on New Year’s Day, 1940, to Bertha Mae Knowles Drake and James Robert Drake. Her father worked as a painter, barber, and alongside an electrician. Her mother, a homemaker and expert seamstress, did domestic work.

Growing up, Holland straddled two worlds: the urban, multicultural city of San Antonio and the rural community of Hondo — about 42 miles west of San Antonio — where her parents were born and reared. Hondo, she says, was a close-knit community in which friendships between people of different races and ethnicities were common. Many families, including hers, were bilingual, Holland recalls, saying that her parents spoke Spanish.

Headshot of Peggy Drake Holland at age 18.
Holland had the nickname “Bookworm” from a young age. She graduated valedictorian from her high school and earned an associate of arts degree from San Antonio College before attending UT. At SAC, she was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society for junior colleges. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

Although children of different backgrounds and races played together in Hondo and San Antonio, when it came to school, she says, “they parted ways,” with African American students attending all-Black schools. In her early years, Holland attended Marian Anderson, a public elementary school in Hondo, and then all-Black Catholic grade schools in San Antonio. Later, she attended Dunbar Junior High School and Phillis Wheatley High School, both in San Antonio.

Holland excelled in all areas of school. She was skipped from sixth to eighth grade and was nicknamed “Bookworm” for her love of reading. It stuck with her from elementary through high school. As a rising senior in high school, she was selected “W (Wheatley) Club Queen,” akin to being named homecoming queen. That honor conjures fond memories, she says, of sitting on the bench with football players during games. Her mother fashioned a crown from gold-colored satin to match the satin jacket and skirt she sewed for those occasions.

Peggy Drake Holland smiles in a gold satin outfit and crown.
When Holland was selected “W (Wheatley) club queen” (akin to homecoming queen) at Phillis Wheatley High school, her mother fashioned a crown from gold-colored satin to match the satin jacket and skirt she sewed for Holland to wear to football games. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

It was math that introduced Peggy Drake to her future husband, Leon Holland.

“The two of us were taking Algebra 4 from the same teacher, but not the same period,” Leon says. “She didn’t know I existed.”

At the end of the term, however, the algebra teacher decided that Peggy, who earned the highest grade in her algebra class, should meet Leon, who scored the highest mark in his section of the course. “He was a chauvinist,” she says with a laugh in describing her teacher. He told her that she should “meet the man who beat her,” with a higher grade point average by three-tenths of a point.

Following that, friends would arrange to bring the two together at different events. It was 1955. Peggy Drake was 15 and not yet dating. But a friendship blossomed. The following year, as seniors, Leon Holland took Peggy Drake to the prom. They both graduated in May 1956, with Peggy academically besting her future husband and all other classmates. She was named valedictorian.

A less traveled road

The couple had their first date the afternoon of their graduation, going to a movie. But they parted ways when she, wanting to stay at home to be near her recently widowed mother, enrolled at San Antonio College. She was 16.

Leon Holland, 17, went on to UT Austin, joining dozens of other Black students as the first undergraduates to enroll at the state flagship. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary education in January 1961, becoming the first African American student to receive a commission from the UT ROTC program, which covered the Army, Navy, and Air Force. His commission was from the Army.

In all, about 110 Black students (including freshmen, transfer, and graduate students) enrolled at UT Austin in 1956, according to “Integrating the 40 Acres” by Dwonna Goldstone. She and other historians note that UT Austin dragged its feet in enrolling African American students after the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, which integrated U.S. public schools, including college undergraduate programs.

Specifically, her mother taught her “that laws existed which granted me the right to attend once-segregated education institutions of my choice — if I were qualified.”

In choosing San Antonio College (a two-year school) after graduation, Holland took a less traveled road for African American students who chose to attend college near their homes. They typically went to the then all-Black St. Philip’s College, also a two-year school. Her decision was intentional, she says, explaining that her mother instilled in her the value of desegregation, especially to take advantage of opportunities that had not been open to her mother’s generation.

Specifically, her mother taught her “that laws existed which granted me the right to attend once-segregated education institutions of my choice — if I were qualified.”

At SAC, which had desegregated in 1955, just a year prior to Holland’s arrival, she experienced the sharp edges of early integration.

She recalls that swimming class was mandatory to fulfill a physical education requirement. Though she repeatedly signed up for the class on SAC’s campus, she was told that she would have to go to the St. Philip’s campus to take swimming.

“I told them that I couldn’t understand why they wanted me to go to St. Philip’s, which wasn’t my school, knowing full well why,” she says. “They had never had Black bodies in their swimming pool and didn’t want to taint it in any way.”

Holland stood her ground. SAC finally relented, ignoring the requirement. There were other episodes of bigotry, she recalls, including a math professor who seated her in a front-row corner desk behind where he stood, intentionally blocking her view of the chalkboard. She routinely took her concerns to the college president, with some success. But none of those challenges stood in Holland’s way. She graduated with an Associate of Arts degree, becoming the first African American student to be inducted into SAC’s national junior college honor society, Phi Theta Kappa. It was 1958. And she was on her way to the University of Texas School of Business Administration.

Peggy Drake Holland wears a cap and gown and holds a bluebonnet chain next to a graduating senior.
Holland takes part in a cap and gown ceremony at UT Austin. As part of the ceremony, a bluebonnet chain is passed from graduating senior female students to rising junior female students. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

The UT years

The transition from SAC to UT Austin meant leaving San Antonio, which was more racially tolerant than Austin. To be sure, San Antonio was segregated. Even so, historians have noted features about the city, such as its multicultural population and presence of several military bases integrated in 1948, that helped the city integrate its public facilities faster. In some instances, integration was done cooperatively with the local church, NAACP, and city leaders coming together to desegregate lunch counters at Woolworths and other establishments in 1960.

By contrast, Austin had created a “Negro District” in its 1928 master plan that was backed by policies to push Blacks to the city’s east side. Though it restricted where Black residents could live in other ways, San Antonio had no such segregation ordinance on its books.

A 1928 City of Austin urban planning map.
In 1928, the City of Austin approved a master plan that forces Black residents to move into a segregated district east of downtown. | Credit: 711.409764 Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Holland knew she was stepping onto a nearly all-segregated campus. It was 1958 — six years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act integrating public facilities and just two years after UT opened its doors to Black undergraduate students (1956). During those years, Ku Klux Klan rallies were not uncommon on Austin streets or UT’s campus, and minstrel shows were staged annually on campus by the Texas Cowboys.

Holland’s intention was to earn a degree from the prestigious UT Austin, while at the same time, smoothing the road for Black students who would follow. She knew the road would be rocky. But even she was caught off guard by the constant, blatant bigotry she encountered from students — and especially from professors.

Student protesters stand in line at an Austin movie theater in 1961.
Students for Direct Action, a multiracial group, begin demonstrations at Austin movie theater box offices, taking turns asking to buy a ticket. When Black patrons are denied, protesters move to the end of the line and repeat the process. | Credit: AS-61–30610–52, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

“Naively believing that most people are good, and that education is accompanied by intelligence, I discovered that I had to change my way of thinking,” Holland says. “I could no longer believe that anyone occupying a high academic position would have the integrity not to act upon personal prejudices.”

Those memories linger large.

There was a professor “who explained on the first day of class that a significant part of our final grade would be based on classroom discussion/participation,” she recounts. “He would select and call the names of students to discuss the chosen subject. He never called my name.”

From then on, Holland sat in the first row of her classes and raised her hand whenever questions were asked.

Protesters carry signs outside Austin city hall in 1964.
The Austin NAACP led regular pickets like this one at Austin City Hall on April 23, 1964. Local NAACP leader Volma Overton also protested with “speak-ins” during City Council meetings, calling for an ordinance banning racial discrimination. | Credit: AS-64–45285–015, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

In another instance, Holland compared her answers on an exam with another student from San Antonio with whom she had studied. She discovered that although they had the same answers, the white female student received a B, but Holland was given a D. She went to her professor’s office to discuss the “error in grading” but was told he had left for South America, “even as I saw the door to his office was open and he sat at his desk.”

Then there were the almost daily slights directed at her because of the color of her skin.

“When I reported to classes, students refused to sit near me and would also move to another seat if I sat at an available desk near them. With few exceptions, this pattern of behavior continued throughout my time there.”

On one occasion in Waggener Hall, some white male students intentionally bumped into her, causing her books and papers “to fall and scatter about.”

Building community

While on campus, Holland made the best of her circumstances, leaning on the shoulders of Almetris Marsh Duren and others who showed kindness and respect. Marsh Duren helped build a dignified space for Black students in which they could be free from the hostilities swirling around them.

“Mrs. Marsh (Duren) was our mother away from home,” Holland says. “You knew that when you walked into 2506 Whitis (Avenue), you could relax and let your hair down. It was our safe place.”

Holland was among the first residents to live in the Almetris Co-op, named for Marsh Duren. It opened in 1958 after the closure of the Eliza Dee Dorm in East Austin.

Group picture of Black female students who lived in the Almetris Women’s Co-op in 1960.
When Holland attended UT, campus housing was segregated, with a few exceptions. Holland (seated left, on the floor) and other Black women lived in the Almetris Women’s Co-op near campus, named after its housemother, Almetris Marsh Duren. | Credit: Almetris Marsh Duren Papers, di_04391, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin

Though the co-op was the residence for Black female students, Marsh Duren also made a place for Black male students, says Leon Holland: “The co-op was our community.”

On Sundays, Peggy Drake, Leon Holland, and other Black students gathered in the dining room to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show,” play cards, and hang out. Peggy says that Marsh Duren made things special — hosting and chaperoning dress-up dinner parties so that African American male and female students could meet and mingle.

“Mrs. Marsh (Duren) was our mother away from home,” Holland says. “You knew that when you walked into 2506 Whitis (Avenue), you could relax and let your hair down. It was our safe place.”

Duren ensured Black students — even those who didn’t live in the co-op — had a roof over their heads, regular meals, and other basics they needed to study and attend classes. She was key to their survival and success at UT, Peggy and Leon Holland recall.

Another high point was March 1960, when Peggy “crossed over” for the Beta Epsilon Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority for Black women.

Housemother Almetris Marsh Duren helped make Almetris Co-op a dignified space for Black students. “The co-op was our community,” says Leon Holland. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

White allies

There also were positive experiences and acts of kindness from white people.

Holland recalls the time business school personnel management professor Robb Seward stood guard “during a time when the KKK had been in the area and near the campus.” Seward showed up near Holland’s dorm, watching as the bus picked her up for a class trip to Houston and returning later when she was dropped off.

“That was something he didn’t have to do,” she says.

Both Peggy and Leon recall another safe place Black students turned to for spiritual uplift and enlightened thought: University Baptist Church on the Drag. Specifically, they cite the church’s late pastor, Blake Smith, for creating a dignified, open space for Black UT students at a time when nearly everything around them was closed to Black people, including other churches near campus.

“We’d go there (University Baptist Church) on Sundays and get spiritually charged and refurbished. His (The Rev. Blake Smith) message was encouraging and gave us strength. We always remember him,” Peggy says.

In 1946, under Smith’s leadership, University Baptist became the first church in the Southern Baptist Convention to integrate, according to the “Handbook of Texas.”

“We’d go there on Sundays and get spiritually charged and refurbished,” Peggy says. “His message was encouraging and gave us strength. We always remember him.”

Those experiences provided a respite from the ever-present racial hostilities that shook Peggy’s emotional well-being. Ultimately, she sought refuge, taking a year off to recoup in San Antonio among family and friends. That was 1961. After working for a year for the San Antonio Housing Authority and teaching at Dunbar, she returned to UT in 1962 and subsequently earned her degree from the business school.

Still reeling from the wounds of racism suffered at UT, Holland did not attend her graduation ceremony. Her diploma was mailed to her.

Picture of Peggy Drake Holland’s bachelor’s degree from UT Austin.
In 1963, Holland received her diploma. She did not attend the graduation ceremony but had the diploma mailed, because “I just didn’t feel kindly after all those bouts and the atmosphere.” | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

Military, family, public service

After graduation in August 1963, she and Leon married. The couple have two adult children, Lynne Holland Koepp and Kenneth Holland; and two grandchildren, Holland Koepp, 17, and his brother Drake, 14.

In all, Leon Holland served 30-plus years in the military, rising to the rank of colonel. Peggy was by his side for more than 28 of those years, during which she volunteered in several roles to provide services to soldiers, including working as a Red Cross dental assistant while the couple was stationed in Kentucky.

Peggy Drake Holland and a female relative adjust Leon Holland’s military jacket.
With Peggy by his side, retired Col. Leon Holland served for more than 30 years in the Army. He was Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency, Fort Detrick, Maryland, from 1985 to 1987. Peggy said the military was an exciting and welcoming environment for her. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

While overseas, Peggy served as a volunteer English instructor to young soldiers studying for their GEDs. The couple’s life in the military took them to France, Germany, and South Korea as well as California, Maryland, and Texas (Fort Sam Houston and Fort Hood).

The military wasn’t entirely free of racism, she says. But overall, it was a far more progressive environment racially than most places — and miles ahead of UT in race relations.

“Life in the military was exciting, interesting, and adventurous,” she says.

Leon Holland’s military career took the Hollands across the world. They’re shown here in Spain. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

In 1991, after Leon Holland’s retirement from the military, the couple moved back to Austin. Peggy continued serving others. As a member of the Austin branch of the Military Officers Association of America, she became the first Black editor of its newsletter, which received awards of excellence during her stint from the group’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The couple also joined the now-defunct Austin Knife and Fork Club, whose membership was by invitation only. Peggy Holland became the group’s first Black president in 2009. For years, she made clothing for children in need and donated baskets of treats during holidays to the Austin Children’s Shelter.

Leon and Peggy Holland sit on football bleachers in 2017 and hold a picture of themselves attending a football game as students.
Football games were part of Peggy’s and Leon’s social life at UT. When they attended, only the student section of the stadium was integrated. | Credit: The University of Texas at Austin/Marsha Miller

Lasting legacy

Holland has received many awards, including the Heman Sweatt Award given to the couple in 2011; and the Legacy Award, from The Precursors in 2017.

In 2010, Peggy and Leon Holland and other pioneering Black alumni founded The Precursors Inc., to preserve and tell the stories of African American students who paved the way at UT Austin. In sharing their experiences, The Precursors hope to smooth the journey for current and future Black students who continue the work of dismantling discrimination — brick by brick.

The Precursors use the Hook ’em Horns hand sign on stage at the UT Austin campus.
The Hollands attend an event for the “Precursors,” who were the early Black students who enrolled at UT. Peggy’s husband, Leon, was in the first undergraduate class to enroll in 1956. | Credit: Peggy and Leon Holland

Peggy Holland’s journey is part of that. Her story is gaining traction with the opening of the Peggy Drake Holland Student Lounge at McCombs. The lounge, located in Suite 5.130 of the main business school building at 21st Street and Speedway, will serve as a space for students, staff, faculty, and the larger community to learn about and be inspired by a key figure in McCombs’ history. This is Peggy Drake Holland’s story.

Alberta Phillips is an award-winning Austin-based journalist whose career spans more than 30 years.

Blazing a Path: The Peggy Drake Holland Exhibit at the McCombs School of Business was directed by Leticia Acosta, curated by Alberta Phillips, researched by Laura Hernandez Ehrisman, edited by Molly Dannenmaier and Matthew Higginbotham, designed by Dana Taylor, and with video production by Catenya McHenry and Jim Canning.

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News, business research, and ideas from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more at www.mccombs.utexas.edu

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Texas McCombs

Texas McCombs

News, business research, and ideas from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more at www.mccombs.utexas.edu