William Sylvester “Babe” Holland, educator, football coach, and civil rights advocate, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on March 2, 1904, to George W. Holland and Alcinda (Trail) Holland. He attended local schools there and graduated from Wiley High School. He enrolled at Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University) and excelled in track and baseball. Consequently, he earned the nickname “Babe.” He later graduated with a B.S. degree in 1925. Holland next attended graduate school at Tennessee State College. He taught at Walden College in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1925 to 1926 and coached football and taught at Tennessee State College from 1926 to 1927. He later earned a master’s degree from Indiana State Teachers College in 1933.
Holland became the coach at Jack Yates High School in 1927 and was one of the pioneer African-American coaches in the Houston Independent School District. In 1930 he led the school football team to win the Texas Negro High School championship title. That same year, he reportedly attended Notre Dame to study football under Knute Rockne, one of the greatest football coaches of all time. Holland led the Yates sports teams in many battles. Perhaps the sweetest victories were when his team won football games against Wheatley High School. The rivalry between these two Houston schools became legendary and every Thanksgiving thousands of fans attended the Wheatley-Yates Football Classic.
Holland’s coaching skills served him well throughout his career in education as he emphasized success not only on the athletic field but also in the classroom. In 1941 he was promoted to principal following the death of James D. Ryan, Jr., another influential educator. Holland helped Yates become widely known for both academic and athletic excellence.
Holland became one of the most outspoken critics of unequal education in Houston. He was in the forefront of the fight to get black teachers pay equal to that of white teachers. He fought for black students to have new books, not hand-me-down books; he fought for them to have supplies equal to that of white students. He even had to fight to get black marching bands a rightful place in parades—not behind the horses whose manure soiled their shined shoes and crisp uniforms.
Holland’s militancy cost him a major promotion. In 1958 when Yates moved to a brand new school building, Holland was not named principal. This was loudly protested by parents, students, and community activists who picketed the HISD administration building. They carried placards, sent telegrams and letters, and delivered a petition of thousands of signatures to the school board. Many supporters of Holland attended the school board meeting, including the Houston Association for Better Schools (a biracial group) and the Yates Alumni association. Some students even threatened to boycott the new school. The school board disregarded the petition and appointed John E. Codwell as principal of Yates High School. Holland remained principal at the old school, which became the James D. Ryan Junior High School. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1974. He was the longest-tenured principal in the history of the HISD.
Holland continued his battle to influence school policy and in 1975 won an election for school board trustee. At the end of this term in 1979, his contributions to education were recognized when the William S. Holland Middle School was dedicated in Houston.
When Holland died in Houston on July 22, 1981, the superintendent of HISD called him, “the great champion of the needs and rights of Black children.” He was buried in Houston Memorial Gardens. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and three sons. He was a member of Trinity United Methodist Church and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. His son George described his father as a “man who felt you had to stand up for yourself to overcome obstacles.” Many of those influenced by Holland became leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. For a time, the Jack Yates High School alumni organized both a scholarship fund and a memorial golf tournament (to raise funds to update school equipment) in Holland’s name.