I recently received in the mail this very interesting photocopy of a program cover for Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournament. There was no note with the image, so I was left to do a little detective work …
Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournaments were an annual competition for African-American golfers, sponsored largely by African-American businesses. The first was first played in 1953, the year before the Brown decision, and nine years before the PGA desegregated. The North-South Tournament lasted until 1989.
The program’s cover is from 1958, which is the year following Charles Sifford’s victory at the 1957 Long Beach Open, an event co-sponsored by the PGA of America (which had not yet split into the PGA TOUR). Sifford was the first African American to win a PGA event. He would finally be admitted to the PGA of America in 1961, when the “caucasians only” clause was dropped.
Ray Mitchell, the tournament’s presenter, was the founder of the Famous Golf School of Harlem. The tournament apparently grew out of — as did many things during the Jim Crow era — his desire to offer opportunities to African Americans that they otherwise might miss.
Ted Rhodes, on the cover along with Sifford, won more than 150 United Golf Association tournaments. The UGA served as the “Negro Leagues” of professional golf. In 1948, he played the US Open at Riviera. Along with Bill Spiller, Rhodes sued the PGA of America in 1948 to end rules forbidding African Americans from playing in PGA events. The suit was dropped when the PGA of Amercia agreed to change its practices. The PGA did not live up to its end of the bargain, however, simply changing tournaments from “Opens” to “Invitationals,” where African-Americans were not invited.
Joe “Roach” Delancey won Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournament four times in a row, from 1957 – 1960. He won UGA National Tournaments in 1953, 1954 and 1955. Although he competed as an amateur in the Los Angeles and San Diego Opens, he was unable to play USGA events because they required club membership, and no club would have him. Finally in 1956, at age 38, Delancey was permitted to join a municipal golf club. That same year, he became the first African American to make it to the quarterfinals of the US Amateur Public Links.
Eoline Thornton was an accomplished tennis player in California, who took up golf sometime after WWII. Playing regularly at the Western Avenue Golf Course in Los Angeles, she came to the attention of Joe Louis. Louis provided support for travel, equipment and instruction. Among other titles, Thornton won the 1951 UGA National Open Women’s Championship. Thornton, a lefty, was known for being a long hitter of the ball.
Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournament was popular, and one source says that thousands came to the Miami Springs Country Club to see the event. It attracted some of the biggest names in African American golf, including Ted Rhodes, Jim Dent, Lee Elder, Bill Spiller, Althea Gibson and Renee Powell. Celebrities also played, including Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Hank Thompson. Bruce Fleisher is among the white golfers who participated. Nat “King” Cole, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Sarah Vaughn were among the celebrities presenting trophies to the winners.
Miami Springs itself has an interesting place in golf’s history of segregation. It was at the heart of a lawsuit, Rice v Arnold, which sought to desegregate Miami’s public courses. Joseph Rice, a caddy, was the plaintiff. The defendant was H.H. Arnold, superintendent of Miami Springs. While African Americans were permitted to play at Miami Springs on Mondays, the suit was an attempt to open all of the city’s courses to play every day of the week. Initiated in 1949, Rice v Arnold went through many legal twists and turns, including two trips to the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, however, the Florida Supreme Court in 1951 ruled that ordinances restricting African American play at golf courses was legal.
A second lawsuit challenging the segregation was filed in 1957 in conjunction with one to end segregated buses. That suit prompted the city of Miami to drop discriminatory rules at Miami Springs and other city-owned courses.
What is particularly interesting about this is that Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournament was played at Miami Springs before desegregation. The Tournament, which originally was held in Jacksonville, became so popular it was relocated to Miami Springs in 1955. Two years before the rules officially relaxed, the five day tournament played host to hundreds of African American golfers.
The February 1958 issue of Tee Cup, the journal of the Western states Golf Association, describes some of the star power of Ray Mitchell’s North-South Winter Golf Tournament. Correspondent Moss H. Kendrix wrote:
MIAMI, Fla.—I picked up the telephone . . . one of my bosses was calling.
“Who’s in the tournament?” he asked. “I’d like to come out and watch some of the play.”
“Well, let’s see . . . There’s Joe Louis and Me, Jackie Robinson and Me . . . The Chicago Cards’ Dick “Nite-Train” Lane and Me, some look-a-oners like Nat Cole, Cab Calloway, Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds and lots of business and professional people from the cold, cold North, who got here just in time to believe that Florida is really Florida, weatherwise.”
Certainly, I should have added that promoter-pro Ray Mitchell was there, with the Boss Mrs., and secretary-daughter Beverly, all just as happy to be out of chilly New York City as was everyone here that resides north of Jacksonville. This was Ray’s 5th annual North-South Winter Golf Tournament, the weather was fine and the Miami Springs Country Club was in top shape.
Out of the tournament came some fine champions—Charlie Sifford, the Philly pro, took first-place money, followed by Ted Rhodes, St. Louis, and Herbert Dixon, Miami, in that order. Joe Roach, Miami boy, who stopped in St. Louis before staking out in Los Angeles, successfully defended his amateur title, edging out Henry Barabin, Los Angeles, and Clifford Brown, Cleveland,
who came in two-three.
There are a couple of photos from the tournament in the Getty Archives. I can’t possibly afford the $500 license to reproduce them here, but you can find them at the link.