Segregating the Fairways: Golfing and Public Leisure in African America
In January, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder dryly proclaimed that “it is indeed gratifying to see how many of our group have taken up the ancient and honorable game of GOLF since the city turned the cow pasture at Douglass Park over to us for a golf course by the placing of six tin cans around said pasture.” In 1926, the African-American newspaper had spearheaded the course’s construction, arguing that “Indianapolis Negroes want to play golf.” By 1928, though, it lamented that the six-hole course at “Douglass park has plenty of hazards, bunkers and the like, but they are not artificial. They are just as God made the land, rough, uneven, uncut grass, trees in the fairways, even the `teeing ground’ is like a bunker.”
Much of the 20th century battleground for African-American citizen privileges and human rights was waged in public spaces like workplaces, schools, and the voting booth. Nevertheless, that activism reached into nearly every corner of everyday life, finding some of its most powerful activism at seemingly prosaic lunch counters, bowling alleys, and municipal parks. African America’s grassroots struggle for citizen rights in seemingly mundane leisure places like golf courses was a critical dimension of 20th-century African-American activism. Such activism remains preserved in traces of the contemporary landscape, but the significance of such spaces—and the persistence of many color line divisions in those very places–risks passing without notice today.
Indianapolis’ first public nine-hole course was built at Riverside Park in 1900, just as golf began to be played in the US; simultaneously, the Great Migration and color line segregation were transforming the world of 20th-century African-American golf. In 1901 Henry Alfred Fleming, an African-American caddy at the Indianapolis Country Club, was appointed as Riverside Park’s golfing instructor. Many African Americans like Fleming found work as caddies at the nation’s earliest country clubs and golf courses, quietly becoming skilled players themselves. John Shippen, an African American and indigenous Shinnecock Indian, was a caddie who played in six U.S. Opens alongside White golfers between 1896 and 1902, but golf clubs and tournaments soon excluded people of color. Fleming’s position as an African-American golf instructor at a public course would be nearly unimaginable by 1910, when golf became a segregated mass leisure.
In the earliest moments of American golfing, caddies like Henry Fleming and John Shippen were cast as service laborers relegated to carrying the clubs of wealthy golfers. Price Collier argued in 1901 that caddies must be “as obedient as a servant,” complaining that golfers “suffer from their ignorance, indifference, and carelessness.” Fleming began his career at the Indianapolis Country Club, which became Indianapolis’ first country club in 1891. The club built a two-hole golf course in 1896 that was expanded to nine holes the following year (a course that is now the grounds of the Woodstock Country Club).
Within a year of hiring Fleming, though, the Indianapolis Journal somewhat ambiguously concluded that “undesirable persons gathered at the links every day and the Park Board discovered that the links would have to be placed under proper management if the sport was to become popular at Riverside.” In May, 1902 Fleming was replaced by Frank V. Lennon. Fleming went on to serve as Director of the Negro Bureau of the Democratic Party in Indiana, and at his death in 1964, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “he was a golf player above the average through the years. Again, according to legends, he was … the first professional (tutor) in the state of Indiana.”
Like racially exclusive clubs and professional golf organizations, Indianapolis’ municipal courses and public parks rapidly became segregated after the turn of the 20th century. In 1908 Ray Stannard Baker found that Indianapolis parks were patrolled by “crowds of rough and lawless white boys.” Baker almost certainly was referring to the privately owned Fairview Park, the scene of race riots since 1901, when he indicated that “although no law prevents Negroes from entering any park in Indianapolis, they are practically excluded from at least one of them by the danger of assault by these gangs.”
Players were complaining about Riverside’s un-groomed course by June, 1900 and again in September, but within a year the sport’s popularity warranted adding nine more holes. In November 1903 the city granted permission to Highland Golf Club to build a course south of Riverside Park, links that are today known as Coffin Golf Course. Highland’s course was opened in 1904 for exclusive club play, but in 1919 the lease was terminated and in 1921 the course became public links. However, the first African-American golf course in the city was not open until the modest links at Douglass Park were constructed in 1926. Douglass Park was created in 1921 from a swath of the Eastside informally known as Claypool’s Woods, and Douglass Park was intended to be the segregated “Jim Crow” park for African-American residents (its pool sported “Negroes Only” signs).
By 1922 Indianapolis had 25 parks, and the city had four municipal golf courses in 1925. Construction of the Douglass Park golf course was approved by the Parks Board in September 1926, and in Fall 1927 a committee led by African-American lawyer Robert Brokenburr successfully campaigned to expand the course to nine holes. Construction inched along in May, 1928, though, and Indianapolis Recorder columnist and golfing champion Morris R. Taylor derided the course as “six tomato cans around the pasture.”
The Parks Department consistently denied African Americans access to public parks and municipal golf courses. In 1923 Parks Superintendent R. Walter Jarvis celebrated the offerings at Douglass Park in The Playground, proclaiming that since “the date of its opening it has demonstrated conclusively how eagerly the colored population of our city welcome opportunities for recreation.” In contrast to Jarvis’ picture of the park, Douglass Park was described by the Indianapolis Recorder in May 1927 as a “space for a few people to walk about and inhale large volumes of dust.” The park had “no comfort stations. There are no improved walks, a few trees, a very few flowers, a little shrubbery, and the area of the park is a little more than a breathing square. The area of the park would hardly afford standing room for the 60,000 people persumably [sic] who must use the park.” African Americans were systematically denied access to other city parks. When the Indianapolis Recorder attempted to secure a permit to meet at Brookside Park in 1926, Jarvis refused to approve permits for African Americans “in order that they may not antagonize other citizens.”
Golfing at Douglass Park mirrored national patterns in the segregation of public courses and competitive golfing. In 1916, the Professional Golfers Association specified that membership was open only to Whites, a code that was not changed until 1961, so Black golfers formed their own organizations. Founded in 1925, the Colored Golf Association had a Fourth of July tournament in 1925 and held tournaments in 1926, 1927, and 1928 at Mapledale Country Club in Stow, Massachusetts. The Mapledale Country Club in Stow, Massachusetts was among the earliest Black country clubs, opened in 1926 with a nine-hole course, but it closed in 1929. Most African Americans played on municipal courses like Douglass, but in 1938 Time ran a story on the 13th annual Negro Open and reported that there were “20-odd private Negro courses” in the country.
Indianapolis’ local Colored Golf Association chapter held its first state tournament in 1927. The Colored Golf Association was renamed the United Golfers Association (UGA) in 1929, and national championship tournaments continued through 1941 and resumed after the war in 1946. The UGA National Negro Open Golf Championship was held at African-American courses throughout the country, including Douglass Park in 1932.
Douglass Park golfers claimed five UGA National Open Women’s Championships. Douglass Park player Lucy Williams won the women’s championship in 1932 after being runner-up three years in a row (she was again runner-up in 1933). Fellow Douglass Park golfer Ella C. Able competed in the first UGA Open Women’s Championship in 1930 before her first win in the 1934 tournament in Detroit and a repeat championship in 1935. Lucy Williams reclaimed the title in 1936 (Able finished second), 1937, and 1946. After her 1936 victory the Indianapolis Recorder observed that “the case of Mrs. Williams is almost like Cinderella; she has but very little time to play, works seven days a week, off a half day on Thursday and Sunday, and yet she sits at the highest peak in golf.”
Lucy Whitehead Williams spent much of her life working as a domestic, cleaning houses as a teenage girl in Georgia before coming to Indianapolis around 1927 and marrying Ralph Williams. When she arrived in Indianapolis Williams worked as an attendant for African-American physician Ezra Dee Alexander, a talented golfer who was the Douglass Golf Club’s President in 1941 and competed for the amateur crown in the 1948 UGA National Championship. Williams worked as a maid or chef throughout her golfing career, and she played with former men’s national champion T. Edison Marshall at Douglass in the late 1930s. Native Louisianan Thomas Edison Marshall became the Douglass Club pro in 1935 after winning the UGA National Championship in 1930 and 1931 and losing the 1932 championship at Douglass Park in a playoff (one of his three runner-up results).
Most African-American golfers aspired simply to secure access to reasonably well-maintained courses and the social circles that revolved around the game. Perhaps the first African-American golf club in Indianapolis had formed by December, 1926, when the Elite Golf Club aspired to “weld together enough sentiment among the better class of Negro citizens to put over a first-class nine hole golf course.” The reference to the “better class” of African Americans did not necessarily cast golfing as the leisure of the wealthy, but it implied somewhat ambiguous social discipline and breeding. In 1927, the Kilt Golf Club formed with a membership of upwardly mobile African Americans and prominent figures like attorney Robert Brokenburr. The club spent $10,000 on a clubhouse on East 30th Street adjoining Douglass Park. The clubhouse opened in August, 1928, but the club appears to have disbanded in 1929.
Douglass Park’s Golf Club formed around 1924 and had regular events and meetings by 1930. Among its earliest members and its President in the early 1930s was Sea Ferguson, who claimed the title of Indianapolis’ African-American golf champion in 1930 and 1932. Ferguson served as national Secretary of the United Golf Association in 1933, he managed Indianapolis’ well-known Cotton Club, and the enormously influential Ferguson became known as the “Mayor of Bronzeville” in 1938. When Douglass’ pro T. Edison Marshall died in 1945, the Indianapolis Recorder suggested that he was “induced to come here in 1935 by Sea H. Ferguson.” Douglass Park’s Golf Club was part of the United Golfers Association throughout its existence, one of nine national clubs that were members of the UGA in 1935. The UGA represented the highest level of African-American golf in segregated America until the PGA integrated in 1961 (see Sanjeev Baidyaroy’s thesis on postwar Black golfing).
The Elite Golf Club’s President Robert Obleton also presided over the Colored Golf Association’s Indianapolis chapter in 1927 and taught at a short-lived golf school on Indiana Avenue in 1927. During its coverage of a 1927 tournament the Indianapolis Recorder referred to Obleton as the “Scepia [sic] Bobby Jones.” Obleton worked as a barber, a car salesman, and hospital janitor during his working life, and he had an especially long history of African-American political advocacy. He ran unsuccessfully for the State Legislature in 1932, and he was the long-time President of the United Colored Non-Partisan Protective Association, which conducted political and working place advocacy for African Americans between the 1930s and his death in 1959. Obleton’s advocacy as a Board member of the Indianapolis Waiter’s Association was almost certainly fueled by his own employment as a waiter at the exclusive University Club of Indianapolis, a men’s club where Obleton worked from about 1951 until his death. Obleton golfed throughout his life and was probably among a very small handful of African Americans in the whole nation who appeared in the 1940 census with an occupation of “professional golfer.”
In the wake of World War II golf courses emerged as one of the many public battlegrounds in the civil rights movement, and racially segregated public courses gradually began to be forcefully integrated. In 1949 Miami proposed to open a municipal course to African Americans one day a week, and after state courts approved the policy in 1950 higher courts ruled against the Miami strategy. Atlanta nevertheless enacted the same tactic in 1954 before a federal judge required the links to be open to all citizens in December, 1955. When the National Negro Golf Open was set to be played in Atlanta’s Adams Park course in 1959, White neighbors “publicized plans to clutter the course from daybreak to dusk,” and the tournament was cancelled. Birmingham, Alabama opened a new segregated course in 1952, and when the city was directed to desegregate it they closed all of Birmingham’s municipal golf courses for 17 months until forced to integrate them in June, 1963. In 1956 Tallahassee leased a course for a dollar a year to make it “private” and extend existing segregation policies (that tactic also was used by some municipalities seeking to preserve segregated pools and beaches).
In 1948 the UGA held its tournament at the Coffin Golf Course in Riverside Park, and they returned for the 1964 championship (former Heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who had often golfed at Douglass Park, competed in the 1948 tournament and was runner-up for the 1964 amateur crown). Nevertheless, golf courses and country clubs were among the last bastions of segregation. Indianapolis’ Highland Golf and Country Club was established in 1908, but it did not accept Black members until an Indiana Civil Rights Commission complaint was filed in 1992. In 1969 the exclusively White Indianapolis Athletic Club rejected a membership application from African-American physician Frank P. Lloyd. A year later the Columbia Club was accused of rendering “humiliating treatment” to African-American guests, a continuation in a long history of racism at the venerable businessmen’s club founded in 1889. After an African-American clergyman was denied admission to a May, 1959 meeting at the club, its President observed that “this is a private club and is limited to members and their friends. We reserve the right to keep this a private club.” In 1966 an African-American member of a Grand Jury being accommodated at the Columbia Club was refused service in the dining room and ushered to a solitary table on a separate floor.
Many of these segregated clubs shared the Columbia Club’s clumsy defense that they were “private” collectives. The Riviera Club was founded in 1933 as an expressly “White Gentiles only” club, but by the 1950’s the recreation and swim club (which does not have a golf course) was the target for desegregation protests from African Americans and Jews alike. The club still required face-to-face interviews in 1974, when a member was barred from bringing an African-American friend to the club, and a civil rights suit was filed. The club argued that as a private establishment it was not subject to civil rights law, and the case dragged on for eight years before the club settled it; its lawyer proudly proclaimed that the settlement did not make any concession of discriminatory practices, and the Indianapolis Recorder complained that the Riviera “still can reject members.”
The rich history of African-American golf is at some level about athletic accomplishment in the face of segregation, but it perhaps is as much a story about the consequence of apparently prosaic leisure. Relatively few of Indianapolis’ African-American golfers appear to have seen themselves as activists, but they certainly did champion fundamental fairness in municipally supported public spaces. That everyday politics characterized much of the civil rights movement in Indianapolis over a century, but most of the men and women golfing at Douglass Park were humble advocates who did not often celebrate their own importance confronting public segregation. Beyond celebrating the legion of players who negotiated the links at Douglass Park, perhaps a central part of that narrative should examine the political consequence of such everyday anti-racism in a host of seemingly commonplace spaces.
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