Golf Course Desegregation Cases

Golf Course Desegregation Cases
The Citizens Golf Club, Washington, D.C., 1927.

Golf Course Desegregation Cases

As with most public facilities in the south (and elsewhere) in the Jim Crow era, golf courses were segregated. In some places, African Americans had separate golf facilities, usually sub-standard. In others, African Americans were permitted to play the came courses as whites, but on different days or times. Just as in more prominent cases, such as the seminal Brown v. Board of Education, golf course desegregation cases contributed to civil rights progress.

Holmes v. Atlanta

Holmes v. Atlanta (1955) was the most significant of the golf course desegregation cases.

Holmes was the first case applying the Brown v Board of Education decision to other facilities. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that Atlanta could not ban African-Americans from its municipal golf courses, and that further, they could not divide days of play according to race. In some ways, the case was just as significant as Brown The decision in Brown could have been read to apply only to public education: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” – Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483. While a short time later, the Court announced that its ban on public school desegregation also applied to colleges, universities, theatres and recreational facilities, it was up to Holmes to make it clear that the logic of Brown applied to other public facilities.

Alfred “Tup” Holmes was an outstanding golfer. He won Tuskegee’s first intercollegiate tournament in 1938 and 1938. Although he was a two-time Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion, Holmes was not permitted to play in the first NCAA golf championship. Later, as an amateur playing on the United Golfers Association tour, Holmes won in 1938, 1939 and 1940 in Tuskegee; the 1938, 1939 and 1940 Southern Open in Atlanta, and the 1939 Forest City Open in Cleveland. He won the 1947 and 1958 UGA Nationals. Famously, he eliminated boxer and golf fanatic Joe Louis in a match on his way to the 1947 Cobbs Creek title.

The case began in 1951, when Tup, his brother Oliver and their father, Dr. Hamilton M. Holmes decided to play at the municipal Bobby Jones golf course in Atlanta. The Jones was one of four municipal courses in Atlanta, and considered the best of the lot. The family had been playing at the nine-hole, black-owned Lincoln Country Club, but wanted more access.

Not surprisingly, given the time and place, the Holmes group was denied their tee time that day in 1951. After consultation with community groups, Tup decided to file a lawsuit. A union steward at Lockheed Aircraft, Tup wasn’t about to be stymied.

The Green Book was a travel guide for African Americans listing facilities they could safely use in a segregated world.

The case opened in the US District Court in 1953. In 1954, District Court Judge Boyd Sloan ruled that that while African Americans were permitted to play golf on the courses, it would only be in accordance with the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. Under the ruling, the city of Atlanta agreed to let African Americans use the course on Mondays and Tuesdays.  While some in the African American community agreed that was sufficient, Tup Holmes thought otherwise.

Initially, there was controversy about the case even within the African American Community. Golf was seen as elitist, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was reluctant to divert money from its strategy of confronting segregation in public education.

Tup tried again to play at the Bobby Jones course, and NBC’s Today Show actually filmed him being turned away.

By this time, public pressure changed the minds of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.  They supported the case. It was becoming apparent that the integration of public recreational facilities could have nationwide impact. Golf carried with it a passion that probably would not be found in tennis or picnic areas.

An appeal took the case to New Orleans. That court, however, also ruled against the plaintiffs. A further appeal got the attention of the Supreme Court. In 1955, SCOTUS sent the case back to the district court for a decree in favor of the plaintiffs. Judge Sloan reversed his previous decision and ordered immediate desegregation.

On December 24, 1955, the Holmes family teed off at Atlanta’s North Fulton Course, becoming the first African Americans to legally play on an Atlanta course.

From all reports, the white golfers there were friendly to the new group. The New York Times reported that the golf pro welcomed them with “Fellows, we are glad you are here.” Holmes shot a 36 on the front side. (You can find an image of the Holmes family coming on this round here.  I’m not paying the leeches at Getty Images $575 to reproduce it on these pages.)

Tup noted later that the 150 whites on the course were polite. “The white golfers in front of us stopped, asked how we ere doing and compared scores with us.”

While some suggested that the city close the courses rather than desegregate, it was not a politically feasible option. More than 200,000 rounds were played in Atlanta in 1953 by some 70,000 white players.

In 1961, Tup’s oldest son was one of the first two African American students admitted to the University of Georgia.

In 1983, Atlanta’s course at Adams Park was renamed the “Alfred (Tup) Holmes Memorial Golf Course.”

More Golf Course Desegregation Cases

To be fair, Holmes was not the first attempt to desegregate golf courses.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, African American golfers pursued a variety of legal and political options to desegregate courses. Petition drives in Miami, Charlottesville, Shreveport, Atlanta, and other southern cities occasionally were enough to desegregate courses. On the legal front, some 28 court cases were fought from 1941 to 1969.

Two of the earliest golf course desegregation cases were filed in northern states: Delaney v Central Valley Golf Club (1941) in New York, and Jones v Attridge and Martha’s Vinyard Country Club (1947). Delaney  ended with a ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the golf course was a place of public accommodation.

In 1948, Charles Law filed a lawsuit against the City of Baltimore, which barred African Americans from playing on municipal courses. The judge in that case, Calvin Chestnut, ruled that black golfers could not be banned from playing the city’s municipal courses. Judge Chestnut further found that the nine-hole Carroll Park course was not equal to the facilities set aside for white golfers. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Board of Recreation decided that the solution was to establish separate tee times for African American and white golfers. Golf course segregation was finally ended in 1951, along with some limited tennis court desegregation.

On a more positive note,  in 1949, the federal Department of the Interior ordered the integration of public golf courses run by Interior in the District of Columbia. Because the city’s courses were run by the federal government (actually the entire city was governed by Congress until 1973), this effectively set a nationwide, federal government policy of integration in recreation.

That same year, Mandeville Detiege, a veteran, sued New Orleans in federal court for full access to City Park’s “golf links, picnic grounds, tennis courts and other recreational facilities.” He was rightfully irritated after being arrested — while in uniform — for standing under tree for shade while waiting for a bus. The case was settled in 1958 as New Orleans City Park Improvement Association v Detiege.

Charlie Sifford in 1961, the year he became the first African American to join the PGA tour.

In a 1950 case, African American golfer Joseph Rice in Miami sued for equal access to the city’s public course, Miami Springs, citing his Fourteenth Amendment protection to equal access. The case, Rice v. Arnold (Arnold was the course superintendent), was denied by Florida courts. An appeal to the US Supreme Court resulted in an order that the Florida Supreme Court re-examine the case in light of recent decisions (Sweatt v Painter and McLaurin v Oklahoma State Regents). The Florida Court, however, ruled that because African Americans had access to the same course as white players, albeit at different times, equal access was not violated. A second appeal to the US Supreme Court was not heard. Miami ultimately dropped its Mondays Only For African Americans policy in 1957.

While Holmes established the principle of integration, as with Brown, it was met with resistance. In the case of Simkins v City of Greensboro (1957), for example, a Federal District Court ordered Greensboro, North Carolina to provide equal golfing facilities. At first, the city tried to lease the course to a private company to continue the discrimination. When the court held that was impermissible, the city simply closed both the white Gillespie Park and the nine-hole, African American, Nacho Park Golf Course. This echoed the tactics of places such as Virginia’s Prince Edward County, which closed its school system rather than integrate. Those schools remained closed from 1959 to 1964.

The sale of public courses to private corporations to continue segregation was an established practice. For example, in 1952, Knoxville, Tennessee leased its course rather than integrate. That same year, however, African American golfers in Houston won a court battle to play on municipal courses.  New Orleans opened white courses to African Americans that year while separate courses were being built for African Americans.

Nineteen fifty two also is the year when Joe Louis received a sponsors exemption from Chevrolet to play in the San Diego Open. Chevrolet apparently had no idea that the PGA had a Caucasian-only rule in place. It took intervention by California Governor Pat Brown to declare the clause unconstitutional, and allow Louis to play. Charlie Sifford became the first African American to win a PGA event in 1957. In 1961, Sifford was the first African American to earn a PGA tour Card.

Nor was discrimination a strictly southern problem. As noted above, two of the first cases were in New York and Massachusetts. In 1947, African American attorney Chester Gillespie applied, but was rejected, for membership at Epworth Heights, a Methodist Church golf course in Luddington, Michigan. Gillespie was a Cleveland area lawyer who was active in civil rights cases. The Methodist Church apparently claimed that the course was run by a private organization. To this day, some private courses continue to hide behind this private association shield.

Gillespie also sued Lake Shore Golf Club in Cleveland in 1942. Lake Shore was a former private club that was sold to the city. The defendants argues that it was still, private, but in 1950, Gillespie won after proving that any white person could become a “member” simply by paying a daily fee. Thurgood Marshall, who, as noted before, was not a fan of golf desegregation cases, congratulated Gillespie for their work.

Golf course discrimination is also not a thing of the distant past. As late as 1990, a controversy erupted over Shoal Creek Country Club, which was pressured into accepting a black member when it served as host of the PGA Championship. Augusta National accepted its first African American member that same year.

There are no doubt courses which continue to discriminate to this day. Thankfully, my home muni is not one of those. My life would be much less rich if I did not have the opportunity to share the course and my rounds with a widely diverse set of players.

Golf Course Desegregation Cases was first published on GolfBlogger.Com

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