“Our Succulent Middle Class”: African-American Country Clubs and the Black Bourgeoisie
In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs. Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis. Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”
The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club. However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor. The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed. Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated. Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated.
African Americans began to settle suburban homes along Grandview Drive not long after World War II, and by the early 1960’s it was a solidly middle-class, predominately African-American community. In 1968 former Ball State and Detroit Lions football player James U. Todd led a group of entrepreneurs who sought rezoning of a 60-acre parcel on Grandview Drive to construct a country club. Investors promised well-appointed facilities with a host of recreational activities alongside athletic coaching from luminaries including Gale Sayers, Leroy Kelly, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Rush, Travis Williams, and Dick Gordon.
In October, 1968 the city approved the construction of the country club “following a lengthy hassle with the Marion County Council which conceded only after the group of black men planning the venture agreed to stiff stipulations.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that conditions for the Sportsman Club’s development “were imposed after residents of the fashionable Grandview area, claiming they feared such an establishment would disrupt their neighborhood with excess noise, littering and other `undesirable’ activities, appealed to the Council.”
In November, 1968 ground was broken for the club with NFL official Claude “Buddy” Young in attendance. The first African-American executive hired by a professional sporting league and a former football player himself, Young applauded the Sportsman Club’s plan to help professional players secure jobs in the off-season and after their playing careers ended. In September 1969 the club held an event at the site and reported on construction progress, and as the club prepared to open it offered membership sales in December, 1969 through early January, 1970. The Club opened on May 22, 1970.
Just a decade before the Sportsman Club opened, Franklin Frazier had launched his classic broadside on the Black bourgeoisie when he argued that social exclusivity among the African-American bourgeoisie was “an effort to achieve identification with upper-class whites by imitating as far as possible the behavior of white `society.’” In 1945 St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s landmark Black Metropolis painted a less somewhat critical picture of African-American elite politics, and Frazier’s rhetorical attack on postwar African-American elite has since been tempered by scholars like Steven Gregory.
Nevertheless, Frazier’s critique of African-American bourgeoisie resonated with at least some Sportsman’s Club observers. Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey was possibly Indianapolis’ most persistent and eloquent postwar critic of racial segregation, and Ramsey preached against African-American class exclusivity in places like the neighborhoods along Grandview. Ramsey assessed the Sportsman’s Club in August, 1970 and argued that Indianapolis’ African-American elite had long been “content to do their own thing separately and to put as much distance between themselves and the black masses as possible. Swank homes with well stocked bars and prestigious cars and membership in clubs which gave sumptuous formal dances were the hall-marks of the Negroes who had arrived.” Ramsey acknowledged that the ambitious Sportsman’s Club venture “could serve as an object of pride to Negroes who can afford that sort of thing,” but he disparaged “how so many black Indianapolitan[s] can find so much money to invest in this monument to middleclassness and none to invest in the fight for freedom and democracy.” Ramsey suggested that with the club’s construction “the sepia middle class locally has shown that it can co-operate to sponsor a project which enhances its relative position in black Indianapolis,” lamenting that “most of the members of the Sportsmen’s Country Club have been very difficult to enroll in the NAACP.”
After hosting a consistent array of events, the club was nevertheless unable to be profitable, and it was placed in receivership December 17, 1970. The club found itself bankrupt and closed January 3, 1971. Optimistic that they could secure 1500 memberships at $350 each, the club had only recruited 280, according to the Indianapolis Recorder. By March 1971 the club was threatened with foreclosure. James Todd lamented that “Sportsman’s Club, Inc., the organization of black professional athletes that supplied the seed money for the project” was at risk to “lose more than $250,000.” Todd charged that the bank’s foreclosure was “a concerted effort to remove the ownership of the club from the black community.”
Among the most demoralizing dimensions of the failed venture was that it had been unable to secure an inter-racial membership. Todd was sober about the genuine cooperation the club had fostered across the color line, and Indianapolis’ social and country clubs were indeed exceptionally resistant to integration. Two miles east from the Sportsman’s Club sat the Meridian Hills Country Club, where African Americans had served as employees since it formed in 1923. In 1972 employee Bobby Jean Gladney filed a Civil Rights Commission suit against the club charging that she had been fired for wearing “an alleged Afro-hair style,” and like many other clubs Meridian Hills argued its membership choices were not subject to civil rights review. The “White Gentiles only” Riviera Club likewise argued in 1975 that it had a right to select membership via face-to-face interviews, waging an eight-year legal defense of their anti-Black and anti-Jewish membership restrictions Formed in 1908, the Highland Golf and Country Club sat two miles south of the Sportsman’s Club, moving to its location along Grandview Drive in 1919. However, the club did not accept Black members until an Indiana Civil Rights Commission complaint was filed in 1992.
In April, 1971 the former Sportsman’s Club members voted to rename it the Scenic View Country Club and lease the property from a court-appointed receiver (State Representative and former Crispus Attucks basketball coach Ray Crowe), provided they could secure 500 members. In May the new club found an ally in Andrew Ramsey, who argued that “in a recent renaissance of black pride, Negroes have sought to counter the exclusions from country clubs by dreaming of possessing their own.” In a moment of classic Hoosier provincialism, Ramsey suggested the Sportsman’s Club collapsed because “too few local citizens joined” and it had “a managerial staff composed largely of outsiders.” Apparently comforted that the club’s fate was being placed in the hands of local residents, Ramsey noted that “many of the organizers feel that a country club will give black Americans a sense of belonging to modern America . . . . If a country club will help the Negro psychologically, this writer is all for it.”
The newly dubbed Scenic View club was opened through 1972, but by January 1973 it again appeared to be financially unstable. In March, 1973 the struggling club again found a defender in Andrew Ramsey, who reported that membership believed that “keeping the club open is a psychological must for Indianapolis Blacks who have suffered many recent setbacks on their road to complete freedom. The Scenic-View Club becomes, then, a sort of symbol of how well sepia Indianapolis is doing in the battle for human dignity.” The club’s efforts to stay open were probably undermined in June when “an armada of more than 100 shotgun-armed deputies in full riot gear” raided the club under the pretense that they were acting on an illegal gambling complaint (the raid resulted in no charges against anybody at the party). Saint Clair Gibson complained about the Sheriff’s Department in his column, asking “Are they against Black folk having a first class club catering to first-class Blacks?” The club’s last events came in November, 1973, and on November 10, 1973 the club closed for good. Neighbors and former club members tried to convince the city to turn the property into a park, but the city declined, and in May 1976 the former country club was purchased by the Christ Church Apostolic congregation. In February, 1977 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that neighbors in the Grandview, Crooked Creek, and Delaware Trails Civic Associations “wanted assurances from the church that the area would not become urbanized. … The new facility is equipped with a nine-hole golf course.” The congregation was allowed to turn the former club into a church, but between 2003 and 2005 the golf course was covered with suburban homes. The country club buildings remain the home to the Christ Church congregation.
In 1971 Sportsman’s Club President James Todd may have launched the most challenging critique of the club’s demise when he attributed the club’s “lack of white support to the difficulty of whites `knowing how to carry themselves in a predominatly [sic] Black situation.’” The Sportsman’s Club’s aspirations for affiliations across the color line were laudatory, and the degree to which such social clubs have ever become effectively segregated along class and color lines alike is unclear. It seems unlikely, though, that Andrew Ramsey would be especially optimistic about the revolutionary potential of any collective that is fundamentally based on wealth or color exclusivity.
St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton
1945 Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 1993 Edition. Harcourt Brace, New York.
1999 Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
2014 A “Voice from the Gallery”: Andrew Ramsey and School Desegregation in Indianapolis. Ohio Valley History 14(3):26-48.
Jessica Holden Sherwood
2010 Wealth, Whiteness, and the Matrix of Privilege: The View from the Country Club. Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland.